Inbox and Environment News: Issue 392

February 3 - 9, 2019: Issue 392

Summer In Pittwater 2019

Sea Mist - Bungan Head - 9.10 a.m. Sunday February 3rd 2019 - photo by Michael Mannington, Community Photography

Narrabeen Rock Pool Rock Shelf, just after Dawn - photo by Joe Mills

Spotted: Careel Bay - two Currawongs trying to feed two larger Channel Billed Cuckoo fledglings

This lovely green and brown grasshopper - lots of these around at the moment

Funding For Northern Beaches Wetlands

Mangrove or Striated Heron Butorides striata - Careel Creek - photo by A J Guesdon

January 30, 2019
From Office of Hon. Rob Stokes

Member for Pittwater Rob Stokes and Member for Wakehurst Brad Hazzard today announced $320,000 to support the restoration and sustainability of local wetlands.

The funds have been secured under the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program and will support Northern Beaches Council in improving key wetland reserves and protecting threatened ecological communities.

“This is a major boost for environmental management on the northern beaches,” Rob Stokes said today.

“Our wetlands are among the most underappreciated natural areas of our community – despite performing a crucial environmental role.

“There is so much life and activity in these areas and a sustained effort is needed to ensure their ongoing health and functionality,” Rob Stokes said.

“These are spectacular areas of our community which have both environmental and recreational values,” Brad Hazzard said.

“Improvements to our wetland reserves have direct benefits to water quality at our local lagoons and beaches.

“Northern Beaches Council has a strong focus on our natural environment and has a passionate and talented team of staff and volunteers who are committed to its long-term sustainability.

“I'm delighted the NSW government is partnering with Northern Beaches Council to ensure these key areas of our community are protected and improved,” Brad Hazzard said.

The NSW Government’s Saving Our Species program is investing $100 million over 5 years to secure the future of NSW threatened plants and animals.

Further details on the program is available at:


Bush Regen. At Ingleside Commences For 2019

Please join our Bush regeneration morning at the Baha'i Temple 173 Mona Vale Road Ingleside. Based on our past success PNHA has been given a new round of funding to continue work on conserving the threatened Grevillea caleyi  so we look forward to your support.

Monday 11 February 2019
Meet at the picnic shelter at 8.30 am

New volunteers welcome - training will be provided
Wear long trousers, a long sleeved shirt and boots or closed in shoes.

The session will be cancelled in the event of rain. For more information contact David Palmer on 0404 171940.

Pittwater Natural Heritage Association

A Survey On Ticks And Wildlife In The Northern Beaches

The University of Sydney is conducting a study to better understand how residents and their pets are encountering ticks and wildlife in their backyards. We invite all Northern Beaches residents to participate in our survey.

Coastal bushland remnants and other green spaces across the Northern Beaches are home to a variety of native plants and animals. They also provide a place for residents to enjoy their favourite outdoor pastimes. Paralysis ticks (Ixodes holocyclus) are common in the Northern Beaches and feed on a wide range of animal hosts during their life cycle. Understanding the complex relationship between ticks and their host species is an essential part of our research. The information we gain will contribute to our growing knowledge of ticks and will guide future research efforts.

We aim to identify:
  • Areas where people are encountering ticks more than others (tick 'hotspots'),
  • Backyard and landscape features that may influence tick presence, and
  • Wildlife using backyards and how this might or might not influence tick occurrence
To meet these aims, it is important for you to provide a street address. If you would prefer not to, we ask that you provide your street name and nearest cross street. It is important for us to create a map of tick encounters to understand what landscape features might influence tick presence and where to target future research.

All identifying information will be removed from any data presentations.

The survey should only take approximately 10 minutes to complete and is voluntary. 

If you have any questions about the project, please contact PhD candidate Casey Taylor on 02 9351 3189 or This project is being undertaken by the University of Sydney in association with Northern Beaches Council.

Your participation is greatly appreciated.

This research has been approved by the University of Sydney Human Ethics committee. (Approval no: 2018/157)

Avalon Boomerang Bags 2019 Start Date +

TUESDAY 5TH February will be our first day back.

WORKSHOPS are held Tuesdays during the school term
at the Avalon Recreation Centre 11.30 - 3.30pm

Everyone is welcome; come for an hour or come for all 4, we'll even provide a cuppa and guaranteed laughs.  Non-sewers also very useful.

Pop in with your excess fabric donations or spare enviro bag donations. We also sell our very handy Boomerang Bag coffee cups, stainless steel drink bottles and other enviro products and of course, our "Bought to Support"  bags. 

Our Christmas Celebration was truly that - a celebration of all that we have achieved together. We've made lots of bags, reduce much fabric from landfill, helped Avalon move towards using less plastics, made friendships and been a small cog in the wheel doing our bit for a better environment tomorrow.

Thanks to all those who helped organise - the food, the drinks, the 'real' glasses and "real" plates, the  fabric serviettes, the fruit mince pies and the Christmas "star" decoration activity....a lovely day.

Round of applause and congratulations to our local 2018 Eco Heroes - our very own Avalon Boomerang Bag volunteer Row Handley, and Manly Boomerang Bag coordinator Jude Furniss. Both of these incredible women are part of many environmental groups making a huge impact in the local community and for the conservation of the environment particularly our oceans and waters ways. Thank you both and our best wishes for your projects in 2019 and beyond. 

Got time to sew over the holidays - need fabric ????
Reply to this email or call Robyn 0412 314 754

Important Community Event: 3D Seismic Testing Planned For Australia's East Coast

January 30, 2019: From Living Ocean

The Federal Government have given approval for intense 3D seismic testing along the East Coast approximately from Newcastle to Woy Woy.  This 500 PEP11 site, a very short distance from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is in the direct migratory path of the Humpback whales Megaptera novaeanglia, and home to dolphins, turtles and a myriad of marine life. 

Science-based evidence shows that ocean noise, such as sonar and seismic testing, has potentially wide ranging and devastating impacts on whales, dolphins and many, as yet not studied forms of marine life.   

To raise awareness in our community of the proposed testing and its potential impact, Northern Beaches ocean-based conservation group, Living Ocean, have partnered with Newcastle group ‘Save Our Coast’.  Together they are hosting a screening of the award-winning documentary, ‘Sonic Sea’, followed by a discussion with a panel of subject matter experts to allow the public to learn more.  Experts including economist, Matt Koch and marine biologist, Libby Eyre and more, will be on hand to answer questions. The moderator is Rowan Hanley - Northern Beaches Council Eco Awards winner 2018. 

This will take place on Wednesday 13 February at 7pm at Avalon Beach Cinema, 2107.  Tickets are free but are limited and must be pre booked here: 

Living Ocean is an ocean-based conservation group on Sydney’s Northern Beaches promoting awareness of human impact on the ocean through research, education and community action.  The group develops and nurtures close and important partnerships with schools, marine scientists, independent corporations and government agencies. 

Its whale research program builds on research that has been conducted off Sydney’s Northern Beaches by experts over many years and its Centre for Marine Studies enables students and others to become directly involved.  Additionally, Living Ocean raises funds for other vital ocean conservation groups.  Living Ocean successfully lobbied NOPSEMA to postpone initial 2D testing in 2017 set to occur in the middle of the southern Humpback migration period. 

Save Our Coast is a Newcastle-based not-for-profit community, dedicated to protecting marine animals and the coastal ecosystem.  They aim to educate, inspire and empower the community to revere and care for our coastal environment. 

The event, which is supported by The Boathouse and Le Pont Wine Store, will include live music, art and will conclude with an after dark light show.   

Abrahams Calls For Unified Political Opposition To Oil And Gas Rigs Off Our Coast

Monday, January 13, 2019
The Independent candidate for Robertson and local businessman, David Abrahams, today called for an end to all oil and gas exploration off the beaches of the Central Coast.

In an unusual development, Abrahams called on all parties for joint political action to stop further exploration for oil and gas and the revocation of the Federal Government’s Petroleum Exploration Permit 11 [PEP 11].

Mr Abrahams said, “No-one wants ruined fishing grounds and oily beaches, no-one wants oil-soaked pelicans, no-one wants a ruined surfing environment, no-one wants dead whales and dolphins on our conscience”.

Mr Abrahams asked, “If none of us want these horrors, why not join together and show the Central Coast community that politicians can work together for the community and need not always be at each others’ throats competing, fighting, scoring cheap points."

Mr Abrahams argued, “I would like to see a joint deputation to the Prime Minister, comprising Lucy Wicks [Liberal], Ann Charlton [Labor], Cath Connor [Greens] and myself [Independent]."

“The reasons for trashing PEP 11 are obvious”, said Mr Abrahams. “ First, the history of oil exploration is littered with accidents that ruin environments for decades. Second, Big Oil is a big contributor to perilous Global Warming and Australia needs to stop being the international pariah and start being a future orientated smart nation that leads, not follows. Third, the Federal Committee overseeing the licence conditions NOPSEMA is deliberately preventing Central Coast residents’ views being taken into account by not holding any community consultations on the Central Coast. Instead holding briefings in difficult to access locations both in Newcastle and Sydney.”

Mr Abrahams said, ”The Central Coast has much to lose with oil rigs dotted along our beaches and coast. PEP 11 is a bad plan. I suggest a good plan … a rare and unified political unity in defence of Central Coast interests would be a powerful act of community-based concern. Let’s do it.”

Upper Hunter Coal Mine Recommendation Shows The Urgent Need For Farmland Exclusions

January 31, 2019: Media Release - Lock the Gate
A mine modification recommended for approval by the NSW Department of Planning today is the thin end of the wedge for mining to creep into the productive Upper Hunter Shire and the region’s strategic agricultural land, which has no protection from coal mining.  

The recommendation, if approved by the Independent Planning Commission, would mean the Dartbrook coal mine would be reopened, extending mining into the Upper Hunter Shire and under land mapped as strategic agricultural land.

Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson Georgina Woods said the recommendation was in direct contrast with what the local council and landholders wanted, and demonstrated the failure of planning law to achieve balance in the Hunter.

“The Hunter Valley has already lost considerable good quality farmland to coal mining. Upper Hunter Shire has so far remained relatively unscathed, but there are fears this proposal is the thin end of a fat wedge of coal mining pushing into the Shire.

“Our planning laws are frankly not up to the task and we need to make the strategic farmland of the region off-limits to coal mining once and for all."

Ms Woods said mining had ceased on the Dartbrook site in 2006, but the modification would allow the company, Australian Pacific Coal, to undertake new “bord and pillar mining.”

“The community sees this as a stalking horse for an open cut mine, which the company has previously said it wants. There’s nothing in the law that would prevent this site and the farmland that surrounds it from being open cut.” she said.

“Lock the Gate Alliance stands with the residents of Aberdeen and the Hunter Valley who want farmland to be off-limits to open cut coal mining.”

Extreme Weather And Geopolitics Major Drivers Of Increasing 'Food Shocks'

January 28, 2019: University of Tasmania
Global food production is suffering from an increasing number of 'food shocks,' with most caused by extreme weather and geopolitical crises. An international study looked at the incidence of land and marine food shocks -- sudden losses in food production -- between 1961 and 2013.

The research, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, identified 226 food production shocks across 134 nations over the 53-year period, noting an increasing frequency of shocks across all sectors on a global scale.

Lead author Richard Cottrell said extreme weather was a major cause of shocks to crops and livestock, highlighting the vulnerability of food production to climate and weather volatility.

"In recent decades we have become increasingly familiar with images in the media of disasters such as drought and famine around the world," Mr Cottrell said.

"Our study confirms that food production shocks have become more frequent, posing a growing danger to global food production.

"We looked at the full range of global food production systems, covering crops, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture

"We found that crops and livestock are slightly more shock-prone than fisheries and aquaculture, and some regions, such as South Asia, are more frequently affected than others.

"While the number of food shocks fluctuates from year to year, the long-term trend shows they are happening more often."

Mr Cottrell said the increasing frequency of food shocks gave people and communities less recovery time between events and eroded their resilience.

"Reduced recovery time hinders coping strategies such as accumulating food or assets for use during times of hardship.

"Combined with adverse climate conditions, conflict related shocks to food production across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have led to a rise in global hunger since 2010.

"Land-based crop and livestock production are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events such as drought, which are expected to become more frequent and intense with climate change.

"However, marine-based food production is not immune from shocks.

"Overfishing was responsible for 45 per cent of shocks detected in landing data, while disruptions to aquaculture production have risen faster and to a higher level than any other sector since the 1980s.

"Globalised trade and the dependence of many countries on food imports mean that food shocks are a global problem, and the international community faces a significant challenge to build resilience.

"This can be done through measures such as investing in climate-smart food systems, and building food reserves in import-dependent nations so they are better able to deal with the impact of disruption caused by problems such as climate change," Mr Cottrell said.

Richard S. Cottrell, Kirsty L. Nash, Benjamin S. Halpern, Tomas A. Remenyi, Stuart P. Corney, Aysha Fleming, Elizabeth A. Fulton, Sara Hornborg, Alexandra Johne, Reg A. Watson, Julia L. Blanchard. Food production shocks across land and sea.Nature Sustainability, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0210-1

Friends Of Narrabeen Lagoon Catchment February 2019 Forum

7pm Monday Feb 25 2019 
Coastal Environment Centre, Pelican Path,  
Lake Park Road, Narrabeen  
Possums, Gliders and Fauna Surveys 

Jayden Walsh and Brad Law will shine a light on the behaviour of our native animals — particularly possums  (including the endangered pygmy possum) and gliders. 

Brad Law, who is an expert on Eastern Pygmy Possums,  will also give some insights about local fauna surveys. 

Make sure you put February 25 in your diary and , so that you don’t miss out, book your ticket early by emailing Judith Bennett at -

Bush Regeneration  
Belrose area - Thursday mornings  
Belrose area - Weekend mornings  
Contact: Conny Harris 0432 643 295 
Wheeler Creek - Wed mornings 9-11am 
Contact: Judith Bennett 0402 974 105 

Council Issues Warning To Beware Of Suspect Tree Operators

January 2019: NBC
Northern Beaches Council is warning the community to be wary of unscrupulous tree lopping operators who flout the law, making residents liable for thousands of dollars of fines for their illegal works.

Ray Brownlee said Council is aware of rogue tree tradesman currently door knocking in Avalon and offering to cheaply remove or trim large trees without Council permission. This follows a spate of similar incidents at around the same time last year.

“Our community is passionate about trees and at Council we are committed to protecting as much of our tree canopy as possible,” Mr Brownlee said.

Most trees over 5m high are protected and residents need Council approval to prune more than ten percent of the tree or remove it. This ensures we maintain the green environment that is so valued by our community.

“Without consent to prune or remove the trees, residents can attract thousands of dollars in fines.

“If in doubt, residents should contact Council to ensure they, or those they contract, are working within the law.”

Mr Brownlee said that a good tree operator will be knowledgeable about what is permitted, be appropriately insured and qualified to undertake the work.

“If an operator can’t demonstrate they meet these requirements, residents should think twice about employing them to do the job in case they ended up being liable for their illegal activities.

“If the work is illegal, then that leaves the property owner at risk of being fined because the contractors have usually left with no traceable contact information,” Mr Brownlee said.

Property owners who are approached by contractors should contact Council first, to check that the work complies with Council’s tree controls or visit our website. Residents can also contact NSW Fair Trading on 13 32 20.


Long Reef Guided Reef Walks

Please find below the 2017 – 2018 timetable for guided walks of Long Reef Aquatic Reserve.

If you’d like to join us on a walk please contact me a couple of weeks before the walk date to make a booking. FREE GUIDED WALKS of Long Reef Aquatic Reserve with NSW Department of Industry & Investment Fishcare Volunteers will be held on the following date:

Dates for 2019
Sunday 6 January 2019         3:00pm – 5:00pm
Sunday 20 January 2019       2:00pm – 4:00pm
Sunday 17 February 2019     1:00pm – 3:00pm
Sunday 17 March 2019          11:30am – 1:30pm
Sunday 7 April 2019               2:30pm  – 4:30pm

Walks are held subject to weather conditions

Bookings are preferred.
Please email Wendy to book:

Blair Refuses To Meet Conservation Groups On Darling River Health

January 31, 2019: NSW Conservation Council
NSW Fisheries Minister Niall Blair has refused to meet two of the state’s peak environment groups to discuss the health of the Darling River after it suffered two of the biggest fish kills in the state’s history. 

“Mr Blair’s refusal to meet is a slap in the face for the many thousands of people who care deeply about keeping the Darling River and its wetlands alive,” Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski said.

“We want to talk to Mr Blair about the efficient and ecologically sustainable management of the Murray-Darling River system.”

The Nature Conservation Council and the Inland Rivers Network represent almost 200 conservation organisations and thousands of members and have valuable perspectives on the management of inland rivers and their ecology.

The groups wrote to Mr Blair on January 17 requesting an urgent meeting in the wake of the first major fish kill in Menindee Lakes earlier this month.

“The NSW Government has done many things that have undermined efforts to restore the system to health and contributed to the devastating fish kills of the past few weeks,” Inland Rivers Network spokesperson Bev Smiles said.

“Mr Blair is Minister for Regional Water and Fisheries. He has very important responsibilities in managing our inland river systems so they don’t have the ecological catastrophes we are currently facing.”

In particular, the groups wanted to speak to Mr Blair about:
  • Environmental water. Inadequate protection of held environmental water especially in sub-catchments of the Upper Darling River. Current Water Sharing Plans on exhibition for public comment, as part of the Water Resource Plan consultation, have no rules to protect publicly owned environmental water from extraction. 
  • Drought of record. Water allocation decisions that are currently based on worst inflow records prior to 2004. This has resulted in over allocation of water resources in inland NSW causing water shortages in this current severe drought.
  • Flood plain harvesting. The continued failure of government agencies to fully quantify and assess the environmental impact of floodplain water harvesting as part of the Healthy Floodplains Project.
  • NSW SDL adjustment projects. The lack of substantial business cases for NSW Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism projects (supply measure projects).

Big Miners Dig Deep For Political Parties Donations Registrar Shows

February 1, 2019: Media Release - Lock the Gate
The latest Australian Electoral Commission donations report, released today, has once again exposed the cosy relationship between resource companies and political parties, according to Lock the Gate.

Among the mining and gas companies who dug deep was Adani, which donated a total of $35,000 to the Liberal Party of the ACT, and $15,000 to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

Other major resource donors included Origin and Santos, who donated $110,000 and $182,000 respectively to the Liberal, National, and Labor parties.

Meanwhile, Whitehaven donated $35,000 to the Federal Liberal Party, Glencore donated $20,000 to Katter’s Australian Party, and the Minerals Council of Australia donated a total of $94,000 in total to the Liberal, National, and Labor parties.

Lock the Gate spokesperson Georgina Woods said mining companies were getting away with damaging communities while handing out tens of thousands of dollars to political parties that were meant to represent the people living in those communities.

She said it was even more insulting because many of those companies that made large donations did not pay a single dollar in tax.

“Santos and Origin paid no corporate tax despite making large income from harming land and water with their activities. They paid no tax, and yet make these political donations, short-changing the public both times,” she said. 

“Coal companies Adani and Whitehaven also paid nothing, while Glencore paid a minuscule amount of just $1,000 on an income of more than $1.5 billion. 

“These companies have the cash to splash to keep politicians in their thrall. 

“The system is clearly broken when big mining can make these massive donations while destroying communities, land and water across the country.” 

These Two Koalas Lost Their Mothers To Deforestation

I call on you to urgently end the deforestation and land-clearing crisis by making potential koala habitat, threatened species habitat, and other high-conservation-value areas off limits to clearing, and by repealing the land-clearing codes.

I also urge you to invest in a restoration and conservation fund and deliver the world-class mapping, monitoring, and reporting the community expects.

Smart Energy Conference & Exhibition 2019

Starts: 8:30am Tuesday, 2 April 2019
Ends: 5:30pm Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Location: International Convention Centre Sydney
14 Darling Drive, Darling Harbour, New South Wales 2000

The Smart Energy Conference and Exhibition is one of Australia’s biggest solar, storage and smart energy conference and exhibition.

Powered by the Smart Energy Council – incorporating the Australian Solar Council and Energy Storage Council, this is our 57th annual FREE-TO-ATTEND conference and exhibition.

  • Over 6,000 delegates, 120 exhibitors and partners
  • A showcase of the latest technology, demonstration of new business models and innovation
  • Outstanding knowledge sharing and networking
  • 3 Conference and information sessions with over 100 presenters
  • CPD points for installers

Plastic In Britain's Seals, Dolphins And Whales

January 31, 2019
Microplastics have been found in the guts of every marine mammal examined in a new study of animals washed up on Britain's shores.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) examined 50 animals from 10 species of dolphins, seals and whales -- and found microplastics (less than 5mm) in them all.

Most of the particles (84%) were synthetic fibres -- which can come from sources including clothes, fishing nets and toothbrushes -- while the rest were fragments, whose possible sources include food packaging and plastic bottles.

"It's shocking -- but not surprising -- that every animal had ingested microplastics," said lead author Sarah Nelms, of the University of Exeter and PML.

"The number of particles in each animal was relatively low (average of 5.5 particles per animal), suggesting they eventually pass through the digestive system, or are regurgitated.

"We don't yet know what effects the microplastics, or the chemicals on and in them, might have on marine mammals.

"More research is needed to better understand the potential impacts on animal health."

Though the animals in the study died of a variety of causes, those that died due to infectious diseases had a slightly higher number of particles than those that died of injuries or other causes.

"We can't draw any firm conclusions on the potential biological significance of this observation," said Professor Brendan Godley, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

"We are at the very early stages of understanding this ubiquitous pollutant.

"We now have a benchmark that future studies can be compared with.

"Marine mammals are ideal sentinels of our impacts on the marine environment, as they are generally long lived and many feed high up in the food chain. Our findings are not good news."

Dr Penelope Lindeque, Head of the Marine Plastics research group at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said: "It is disconcerting that we have found microplastic in the gut of every single animal we have investigated in this study.

"Indeed, from our work over the years we have found microplastic in nearly all the species of marine animals we have looked at; from tiny zooplankton at the base of the marine food web to fish larvae, turtles and now dolphins, seals and whales.

"We don't yet know the effects of these particles on marine mammals. Their small size means they may easily be expelled, but while microplastics are unlikely to be the main threat to these species, we are still concerned by the impact of the bacteria, viruses and contaminants carried on the plastic.

"This study provides more evidence that we all need to help reduce the amount of plastic waste released to our seas and maintain clean, healthy and productive oceans for future generations."

In total, 26 species of marine mammal are known to inhabit or pass through British waters.

The species in this study were: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, grey seal, harbour porpoise, harbour seal, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, striped dolphin and white-beaked dolphin.

The study, supported by Greenpeace Research Laboratories, used samples provided by the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS), Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Marine Stranding's Network and ZSL's (Zoological Society of London) Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP).

S. E. Nelms, J. Barnett, A. Brownlow, N. J. Davison, R. Deaville, T. S. Galloway, P. K. Lindeque, D. Santillo, B. J. Godley. Microplastics in marine mammals stranded around the British coast: ubiquitous but transitory? Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-37428-3

Common dolphin washed up on a beach. Credit: Frazer Hodgkins & CSIP

Earth's Largest Extinction Event Likely Took Plants First

January 31st, 2019
Little life could endure the Earth-spanning cataclysm known as the Great Dying, but plants may have suffered its wrath long before many animal counterparts, says new research led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

About 252 million years ago, with the planet's continental crust mashed into the supercontinent called Pangaea, volcanoes in modern-day Siberia began erupting. Spewing carbon and methane into the atmosphere for roughly 2 million years, the eruption helped extinguish about 96 percent of oceanic life and 70 percent of land-based vertebrates -- the largest extinction event in Earth's history.

Yet the new study suggests that a byproduct of the eruption -- nickel -- may have driven some Australian plant life to extinction nearly 400,000 years before most marine species perished.

"That's big news," said lead author Christopher Fielding, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences. "People have hinted at that, but nobody's previously pinned it down. Now we have a timeline."

The researchers reached the conclusion by studying fossilized pollen, the chemical composition and age of rock, and the layering of sediment on the southeastern cliffsides of Australia. There they discovered surprisingly high concentrations of nickel in the Sydney Basin's mud-rock -- surprising because there are no local sources of the element.

This is a view of Coalcliff in New South Wales, Australia, where researchers discovered evidence that Earth's largest extinction may have extinguished plant life nearly 400,000 years before marine animal species disappeared. Credit: Christopher Fielding

Tracy Frank, professor and chair of Earth and atmospheric sciences, said the finding points to the eruption of lava through nickel deposits in Siberia. That volcanism could have converted the nickel into an aerosol that drifted thousands of miles southward before descending on, and poisoning, much of the plant life there. Similar spikes in nickel have been recorded in other parts of the world, she said.

"So it was a combination of circumstances," Fielding said. "And that's a recurring theme through all five of the major mass extinctions in Earth's history."

If true, the phenomenon may have triggered a series of others: herbivores dying from the lack of plants, carnivores dying from a lack of herbivores, and toxic sediment eventually flushing into seas already reeling from rising carbon dioxide, acidification and temperatures.

'It Lets Us See What's Possible'

One of three married couples on the research team, Fielding and Frank also found evidence for another surprise. Much of the previous research into the Great Dying -- often conducted at sites now near the equator -- has unearthed abrupt coloration changes in sediment deposited during that span.

Shifts from grey to red sediment generally indicate that the volcanism's ejection of ash and greenhouse gases altered the world's climate in major ways, the researchers said. Yet that grey-red gradient is much more gradual at the Sydney Basin, Fielding said, suggesting that its distance from the eruption initially helped buffer it against the intense rises in temperature and aridity found elsewhere.

Though the time scale and magnitude of the Great Dying exceeded the planet's current ecological crises, Frank said the emerging similarities -- especially the spikes in greenhouse gases and continuous disappearance of species -- make it a lesson worth studying.

"Looking back at these events in Earth's history is useful because it lets us see what's possible," she said. "How has the Earth's system been perturbed in the past? What happened where? How fast were the changes? It gives us a foundation to work from -- a context for what's happening now."

The researchers detailed their findings in the journal Nature Communications. Fielding and Frank authored the study with Allen Tevyaw, graduate student in geosciences at Nebraska; Stephen McLoughlin, Vivi Vajda and Chris Mays from the Swedish Museum of Natural History; Arne Winguth and Cornelia Winguth from the University of Texas at Arlington; Robert Nicoll of Geoscience Australia; Malcolm Bocking of Bocking Associates; and James Crowley of Boise State University.

The National Science Foundation and the Swedish Research Council funded the team's work.

Christopher R. Fielding, Tracy D. Frank, Stephen McLoughlin, Vivi Vajda, Chris Mays, Allen P. Tevyaw, Arne Winguth, Cornelia Winguth, Robert S. Nicoll, Malcolm Bocking, James L. Crowley. Age and pattern of the southern high-latitude continental end-Permian extinction constrained by multiproxy analysis. Nature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07934-z

Australia Post To Operate Nation’s Largest Electric Vehicle Fleet

February 1st, 2019: Australia Post
A new order for an additional 1,000 three-wheeled electric delivery vehicles (eDVs), by Australia Post, is set to make it the nation’s largest electric vehicle fleet operator.

Australia Post Group Chief Operating Officer, Bob Black, said the 1,000 eDVs boost its existing fleet of electric postie vehicles – including electric pushbikes – and creates a range of benefits for posties, customers and the environment.

“We are proud to soon be operating Australia’s largest fleet of electric vehicles, and hope this will set the standard across Australia,” Mr Black said.

“With parcel volumes growing – on average, close to 10 per cent each year for the last three years – and letter volumes declining, we’re always looking for ways to ensure our posties continue to play an important and sustainable role in the community.

“These vehicles offer additional carrying capacity, so our posties can deliver more parcels than ever before directly to the customer’s door – and can perform additional functions, such as collecting mail from street posting boxes.”

Along with delivery benefits, Mr Black said the electric vehicles also offer added safety and environmental protections.

“The eDVs are safer than the traditional motorcycle. They are easier to see on the road, more stable, have increased rider protection and lower on-road speeds, all of which reduce a postie’s exposure to incidents and serious accidents.

“We started trialling eDVs in 2017 and we’ve since deployed them in all states. We have worked closely with our posties to make improvements along the way.

“Our posties love the eDVs because they demonstrate our commitment to providing safer and more sustainable employment into the future, given consumers are sending fewer letters and relying more and more on their postie to deliver their parcels.

“They will also help us achieve our commitment of reducing our carbon emissions by 25 per cent by 2020.”

Deployment of the additional 1,000 vehicles is expected to start from June across all states.

Along with the additional 1,000 eDVs Australia Post will also roll out an additional 4,000 electric pushbikes, bringing its total to 5,980 over the next three years.

Climate Change And Infertility - A Ticking Time Bomb?

January 31st, 2019
Rising temperatures could make some species sterile and see them succumb to the effects of climate change earlier than currently thought, scientists at the University of Liverpool warn.

"There is a risk that we are underestimating the impact of climate change on species survival because we have focused on the temperatures that are lethal to organisms, rather than the temperatures at which organisms can no longer breed," explains evolutionary biologist Dr Tom Price from the University's Institute of Integrative Biology.

Currently, biologists and conservationists are trying to predict where species will be lost due to climate change, so they can build suitable reserves in the locations they will eventually need to move to. However, most of the data on when temperature will prevent species surviving in an area is based on the 'critical thermal limit' or CTL -- the temperature at which they collapse, stop moving or die.

In a new opinion article published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the researchers highlight that extensive data from a wide variety of plants and animals suggests that organisms lose fertility at lower temperatures than their CTL.

Certain groups are thought to be most vulnerable to climate-induced fertility loss, including cold-blooded animals and aquatic species. "Currently the information we have suggests this will be a serious issue for many organisms. But which ones are most at risk? Are fertility losses going to be enough to wipe out populations, or can just a few fertile individuals keep populations going? At the moment, we just don't know. We need more data," says Dr Price.

To help address this, the researchers propose another measure of how organisms function at extreme temperatures that focuses on fertility, which they have called the Thermal Fertility Limit or 'TFL'.

"We think that if biologists study TFLs as well as CTLs then we will be able to work out whether fertility losses due to climate change are something to worry about, which organisms are particularly vulnerable to these thermal fertility losses, and how to design conservation programmes that will allow species to survive our changing climate.

"We need researchers across the world, working in very different systems, from fish, to coral, to flowers, to mammals and flies, to find a way to measure how temperature impacts fertility in that organism and compare it to estimates of the temperature at which they die or stop functioning," urges Dr Price.

The work was carried out in collaboration with scientists from the University of Leeds, University of Melbourne and Stockholm University and was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Benjamin S. Walsh, Steven R. Parratt, Ary A. Hoffmann, David Atkinson, Rhonda R. Snook, Amanda Bretman, Tom A.R. Price. The Impact of Climate Change on Fertility. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2018.12.002

Statin Therapy Found Safe And Effective For People Over 75 Years

February 1, 2019: The Lancet
A meta-analysis finds that despite less evidence in the over 75s than in younger patients, statins reduce the risk of vascular events in older people. The research found no adverse effects of statin therapy on non-vascular mortality or cancer. Statin therapy reduces major vascular events, and a new meta-analysis shows this is the case even in patients over 75 years of age. The research, published in The Lancet, summarises evidence from 28 randomised controlled trials, including 186,854 patients, 14,483 of whom were aged over 75.

Irrespective of age, statins reduced risks of major vascular events by about a fifth per 1 mmol/L reduction in LDL cholesterol. For major coronary events the overall reduction was about a quarter per 1 mmol/L reduction overall, but ranged from about 30% in those aged <55 years to around 20% in those aged >75. The relative risk reductions for stroke and for coronary revascularisation (coronary stenting or bypass surgery) were similar in all age groups.

Dr Jordan Fulcher of the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists' (CTT) Collaboration, who is based at the University of Sydney NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, Australia, says: "Statins are a useful and affordable drug that reduce heart attacks and strokes in older patients. Until now there has been an evidence gap and we wanted to look at their efficacy and safety in older people. Our analysis indicates that major cardiovascular events were reduced by about a fifth, per mmol/L lower LDL cholesterol, by statin therapy across all age groups. Despite previous concerns we found no adverse effect on cancer or non-vascular mortality in any age group."

Statins are cholesterol lowering drugs that are widely prescribed to patients at increased risk of heart attacks or strokes. Evidence from randomised trials has shown that statin therapy reduces this risk among a wide range of individuals but there has been uncertainty about their benefits in older people.

In the past, trials that looked at the effect of statin therapy reported significant cardiovascular risk reductions in the 65-70 age group but there have been questions about their benefits in older patients, particularly those over 75. Statin therapy is often discontinued in older patients in part because of this question around risk and benefit.

The Cholesterol Treatment Trialists' Collaboration looked at 23 trials that compared statin treatment to a control group and a further five that investigated intensive versus standard statin therapy. They divided patients into six age groups, and investigated effects on major vascular events (comprising major coronary events, strokes and coronary revascularisations), cancer incidence and cause specific mortality.

Of the 186,854 participants in the trials that were reviewed, with a mean age of 63 years, 14,483 were older than 75 years.

The analysis shows that the reduction in major vascular events -- 21% per 1 mmol/L reduction in LDL cholesterol overall -- is similar and significant in all age groups, including those over 75 years of age. For major coronary events the overall reduction is 24% per 1 mmol/L reduction in LDL, but decreases slightly with age. The study also shows no increased risk of non-vascular mortality or cancer in any age group.

The researchers noted that their results were influenced by four trials done exclusively among patients who had heart failure or were on renal dialysis. Statins have not been shown to be effective in these people, and are not recommended for them. When these participants were excluded, similar reductions in risk were seen across all age groups, including for major vascular events and cardiovascular mortality. A slightly smaller reduction in the risk of major coronary events with increasing age persisted.

The research also examined the effects of statins on major vascular events in people with a history of vascular disease (secondary prevention) and in people without known vascular disease (primary prevention). In the secondary prevention setting, the researchers found similar proportional risk reductions regardless of age, which would equate to a larger absolute benefit in older people. In the primary prevention setting the results were similar, but as there were fewer such older participants in the trials, the conclusions were less definite. More evidence from randomised trials in older people without previous vascular disease will be helpful and trials are ongoing.

In the primary prevention setting (ie, in individuals with no known history of vascular disease), two individuals aged 63 years and 78 years with otherwise identical risk factors might have projected major vascular event rates of 2.5% versus 4.0% per year, respectively. Reducing those risks by a fifth with a 1.0 mmol/L LDL cholesterol reduction would prevent first major vascular events from occurring each year in 50 individuals aged 63 years and 80 individuals aged 78 years per 10,000 people treated.

In the secondary prevention setting (ie, with known history of vascular disease), the absolute risks of a major vascular event are typically at least twice as large, so every year the same LDL cholesterol reduction in people with prior vascular disease would prevent first major vascular events in at least 100 individuals aged 63 years and at least 160 aged 78 years per 10,000 treated.

The present analyses focused on the effects of statin therapy on major vascular events, mortality and cancer, and the authors limited their meta-analysis to large trials, known to generate the most reliable evidence. Previous studies have shown that the benefits of statins outweigh the risk of other adverse events (such as myopathy), and ongoing work in this area is being conducted by the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists' Collaboration.

Writing in a linked Comment, Bernard M Y Cheung of the Queen Mary Hospital at the University of Hong Kong says: "Even if risk reduction in people older than 75 years is less than expected, statin therapy may still be justified by a high baseline cardiovascular risk, which is usually present in older people. The present meta-analysis makes a case to reduce LDL cholesterol in people at risk of cardiovascular events regardless of age, provided that the benefits outweigh the risks and the patient accepts long term treatment."

Jane Armitage, Colin Baigent, Elizabeth Barnes, D John Betteridge, Lisa Blackwell, Michael Blazing, Louise Bowman, Eugene Braunwald, Robert Byington, Christopher Cannon, Michael Clearfield, Helen Colhoun, Rory Collins, Björn Dahlöf, Kelly Davies, Barry Davis, James de Lemos, John R Downs, Paul Durrington, Jonathan Emberson, Bengt Fellström, Marcus Flather, Ian Ford, Maria Grazia Franzosi, Jordan Fulcher, John Fuller, Curt Furberg, David Gordon, Shinya Goto, Antonio Gotto, Heather Halls, Charlie Harper, C Morton Hawkins, Will Herrington, Graham Hitman, Hallvard Holdaas, Lisa Holland, Alan Jardine, J Wouter Jukema, John Kastelein, Sharon Kean, Anthony Keech, Adrienne Kirby, John Kjekshus, Genell Knatterud (deceased), Robert Knopp (deceased), Wolfgang Koenig, Michael Koren, Vera Krane, Martin J Landray, John LaRosa, Eva Lonn, Peter MacFarlane, Stephen MacMahon, Aldo Maggioni, Roberto Marchioli, Ian Marschner, Borislava Mihaylova, Lemuel Moyé, Sabina Murphy, Haruo Nakamura, Andrew Neil, Connie Newman, Rachel O'Connell, Chris Packard, Sarah Parish, Terje Pedersen, Richard Peto, Marc Pfeffer, Neil Poulter, David Preiss, Christina Reith, Paul Ridker, Michele Robertson, Frank Sacks, Naveed Sattar, Roland Schmieder, Patrick Serruys, Peter Sever, John Shaw, Charles Shear, John Simes, Peter Sleight, Enti Spata, Luigi Tavazzi, Jonathan Tobert, Gianni Tognoni, Andrew Tonkin, Stella Trompet, John Varigos, Christoph Wanner, Hans Wedel, Harvey White, John Wikstrand, Lars Wilhelmsen, Kate Wilson, Robin Young, Salim Yusuf, Faiez Zannad. Efficacy and safety of statin therapy in older people: a meta-analysis of individual participant data from 28 randomised controlled trials. The Lancet, 2019; 393 (10170): 407 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31942-1

Health Check: What Causes Bloating And Gassiness?

January 30, 2019
The following opinion piece authored by Dr Vincent Ho, Senior Lecturer with the School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, was first published with full links on The Conversation .

Your trousers fit when you put them on in the morning. But come mid-afternoon, they’re uncomfortably tight – and you didn’t even overdo it at lunchtime. Sound familiar?

Around one in six people without a health problem and three in four people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) report problems with bloating. In fact, for people with IBS and constipation, bloating is their most troublesome symptom.

Bloating is, of course, a feeling of increased abdominal pressure, usually related to gas. It may or may not be accompanied by visible enlargement of the waist (known as abdominal distension).

But contrary to popular belief, bloating and abdominal distention isn’t caused by an excessive production of gas in the intestines.

What causes intestinal gas?
Gas in the upper gut can come from swallowed air, chemical reactions (from neutralising acids and alkali) triggered by food, and dissolved gas moving from the bloodstream into the gut.

Food products that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine can travel lower down to the large intestine where they’re fermented by bacteria. This process can produce carbon dioxide, hydrogen or methane gas.

Gas from the gut can come out through belching or passing wind, or by being absorbed into the blood or consumed by bacteria.

How much wind is normal?
Back in 1991, researchers in the UK tracked the farts of ten healthy volunteers. The volume of gas they expelled in a day varied from 214 mls (on a low-fibre diet) to 705 mls (on a high fibre diet).

The participants passed wind an average of 14 to 18 times per day, and it was comprised mainly of carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

In the fasting state, the healthy gastrointestinal tract contains around 100 mls of gas which is  distributed almost equally among six segments of the gut: the stomach, small intestine, ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon and lower (pelvic) colon.

After eating, the volume of gas in the gut can increase by about 65% and tends to be located around the pelvic colon.

As the stomach stretches and small bowel is stimulated, the passage of gas accelerates and you might feel the urge to fart.

But for people with a high-fat diet, fats inside the small bowel can delay this passage and make you retain the gas.

Bloaters don’t produce more gas
A 1975 study compared the amount of intestinal gas between people who reported being bloated and those who said they were not.

The researchers pumped (inert) gas through a tube directly into the participants’ intestines at a relatively high flow of 45 mls per minute. Then they recovered the gas via a plastic tube from their rectum.

The researchers found no difference in the levels of gas collected between the bloating and healthy subjects.

More recent research using abdominal CT scans has shown that people with bloating have similar volumes of intestinal gas as those who don’t feel bloated.

Likewise, although people with IBS experience more abdominal distention, they do not produce more intestinal gas than other people.

This leads us to believe the volume of gas in the gut itself isn’t the main mechanism for bloating.

When gas gets trapped
Most people tolerate intestinal gas really well because they can propel and evacuate gas very efficiently. As a result, only a relatively small amount of gas remains inside the gut at a given time.

In one study, researchers pumped just over 1.4 litres of gas in two hours into the mid-small bowel of healthy volunteers. This led to only a very small change in waist circumference: no more than 4mm.

On the other hand, people with abdominal conditions such as IBS or functional dyspepsia (indigestion), show impaired gas transit – in other words, the gas ends up being trapped in different parts of the bowel rather than moving along easily.

Studies show people with abdominal conditions tend to retain a relatively large proportion of gas pumped into the mid small bowel. They may even have notable increases in waist circumference without any gas being pumped in.

This impairment was confirmed in a study comparing 20 participants with IBS to a control group of 20 healthy participants. All received gas pumped directly into the mid-small bowel.

Some 90% of IBS participants retained the gas in their intestines compared to only 20% of control subjects. The researchers found abdominal distension was directly correlated with gas retention.

Some people also have problems evacuating this gas, or farting. People with IBS and chronic constipation, for instance, may have difficulty relaxing and opening their anal sphincter to release farts.

This can lead to intestinal gas retention and symptoms of bloating, abdominal pain and distension.

Pain without looking bloated
Despite feeling extremely bloated, some people have minimal or no distension of their stomach.

Research among people with IBS suggests this pain and discomfort may be due to a heightened sensitivity in the gut when a section of the abdomen stretches.

In fact, one study found those with bloating alone had more abdominal pain than those who had symptoms of bloating and abdominal distension.

If you’re sensitive to this stretching, are unable to move gas throughout your gut, and can’t get rid of it, you’re likely to have bloating and pain, whether or not there’s any visual sign.

Poor Sleep At Night; More Pain The Next Day

January 29, 2019: Rice University
After one night of inadequate sleep, brain activity ramps up in pain-sensing regions while activity is scaled back in areas responsible for modulating how we perceive painful stimuli. This finding, published in JNeurosci, provides the first brain-based explanation for the well-established relationship between sleep and pain.

In two studies -- one in a sleep laboratory and the other online -- Matthew Walker and colleagues show how the brain processes pain differently when individuals are sleep deprived and how self-reported sleep quality and pain sensitivity can change night-to-night and day-to-day. When the researchers kept healthy young adults awake through the night in the lab, they observed increased activity in the primary somatosensory cortex and reduced activity in regions of the striatum and insula cortex during a pain sensitivity task. Participants in the online study, recruited via the crowdsourcing marketplace Amazon Mechanical Turk, reported increased pain during the day after reporting poor sleep the night before.

These results suggest improving sleep quality, especially in hospital settings, could be an effective approach for pain management. More generally, the research highlights the interrelationship between sleep and pain, which is decreasing and increasing, respectively, in societies around the world.

Adam J. Krause, Aric A. Prather, Tor D. Wager, Martin A. Lindquist, Matthew P. Walker. The pain of sleep loss: A brain characterisation in humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2019; 2408-18 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2408-18.2018

Missing-Link In Planet Evolution Found

January 29, 2019
For the first time ever, astronomers have detected a 1.3 km radius body at the edge of the Solar System. Kilometre sized bodies like the one discovered have been predicted to exist for more than 70 years. These objects acted as an important step in the planet formation process between small initial amalgamations of dust and ice and the planets we see today.

The Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt is a collection of small celestial bodies located beyond Neptune's orbit. The most famous Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt Object is Pluto. Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt Objects are believed to be remnants left over from the formation of the Solar System. While small bodies like asteroids in the inner Solar System have been altered by solar radiation, collisions, and the gravity of the planets over time; objects in the cold, dark, lonely Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt preserve the pristine conditions of the early Solar System. Thus astronomers study them to learn about the beginning of the planet formation process.

Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt Objects with radii from 1 kilometer to several kilometers have been predicted to exist, but they are too distant, small, and dim for even world-leading telescopes, like the Subaru Telescope, to observe directly. So a research team led by Ko Arimatsu at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan used a technique known as occultation: monitoring a large number of stars and watching for the shadow of an object passing in front of one of the stars. The OASES (Organized Autotelescopes for Serendipitous Event Survey) team placed two small (28 cm) telescopes on the roof of the Miyako open-air school on Miyako Island, Miyakojima-shi, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, and monitored approximately 2000 stars for a total of 60 hours.

Analysing the data, the team found an event consistent with a star appearing to dim as it is occulted by a 1.3 km radius Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt Object. This detection indicates that kilometre sized Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt Objects are more numerous than previously thought. This supports models where planetesimals first grow slowly into kilometre sized objects before runaway growth causes them to merge into planets.

Arimatsu explains, "This is a real victory for little projects. Our team had less than 0.3% of the budget of large international projects. We didn't even have enough money to build a second dome to protect our second telescope! Yet we still managed to make a discovery that is impossible for the big projects. Now that we know our system works, we will investigate the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt in more detail. We also have our sights set on the still undiscovered Oort Cloud out beyond that."

This research was made possible by the support of the Miyako open-air school and the local community in Miyakojima-shi.

K. Arimatsu, K. Tsumura, F. Usui, Y. Shinnaka, K. Ichikawa, T. Ootsubo, T. Kotani, T. Wada, K. Nagase, J. Watanabe. A kilometre-sized Kuiper belt object discovered by stellar occultation using amateur telescopes. Nature Astronomy, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41550-018-0685-8

This is an artist's impression of the newly discovered object. Credit: Ko Arimatsu

Panic Attacks Tackled In One-Week Intensive Online Therapy

January 23, 2019: Isabelle Dubach - UNSW
Scientists from UNSW Science’s School of Psychology and St. Vincent’s Hospital are leading world-first research to learn more about a novel therapeutic approach for people who suffer from panic attacks. They are conducting a study that seeks to treat people with panic disorder and agoraphobia – the fear of places and situations that might lead to panic attacks – with just one week of therapy.

In the study, the researchers are delivering an adapted version of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), an approach already known to be effective for some people with anxiety and depression. Both the concept of delivering CBT online and in intensive format has already been shown to work – but never in combination.

“We know that CBT can be delivered in intensive format over a short amount of time in-person. A few recent studies have already shown that it’s an effective delivery format in panic, OCD and PTSD and specific phobias, like spiders,” says study lead Eileen Stech, a trainee psychologist from UNSW Psychology, who leads the study.

“And a number of research teams have developed online self-help programs that people can work through – these can overcome some of the barriers to access, like cost, and people can do it at night if that’s more convenient to them than having to see a therapist during regular office hours.”

'We’re testing whether we can ... deliver it online, so we can reach people in rural and remote areas, as well as people who are too impaired to travel to therapy. No one has tested this ever before.'

The team is now testing whether the two formats can be combined.

“We’re testing whether we can take that exciting intensive model and deliver it online, so we can reach people in rural and remote areas, as well as people who are too impaired to travel to therapy. No one has tested this ever before,” Ms Stech says.

The researchers are working with people with panic disorder, i.e. people experiencing frequent panic attacks or worrying a lot about having panic attacks, as well as avoiding situations and places in their life because of fear of panic.

“Frequency of attacks can be a marker of severity, but not always – some people might just have one really awful panic attack and then be so afraid of future attacks that they really dramatically alter their lifestyle really quickly. It’s a vicious cycle, where they may have more panic attacks because of that,” says UNSW psychologist Dr Jill Newby.

People who are eligible for the study after the initial screening process need to commit three to four hours a day on therapy activities for seven days. During that time, participants complete online, comic-style lessons that follow a person’s journey of overcoming panic disorder through CBT. The study uses an adaption of the team’s existing six-lesson panic program, focusing on the key strategies.

“The online comics lessons which follow that person’s experience are accompanied by lesson summaries, which have more detail on how to implement the activities and worksheets so participants can apply it to their own life. There’s also demonstration videos and FAQs,” Ms Stech says.

'Although facing your fears takes courage, many patients report it is a very empowering process.'

Participants then spend the rest of the time each day putting the activities into practice. A key component of the therapy is exposure – i.e. exposing yourself to the trigger of panic, which can be certain body sensations, places or situations. Over time, people with panic disorder become very sensitive to small changes in their body sensations, fearing they signal danger, such as a heart attack or stroke.

“Participants are guided through specific exercises that help them re-evaluate those fears and develop more realistic thoughts,” Ms Stech explains.

“They are guided through a framework that allows them to re-enter feared situations in a gradual and controlled manner, always taking things step by step. Although facing your fears takes courage, many patients report it is a very empowering process.”

Participants can also access support from clinicians via email and phone throughout that week to help them complete the exercises.

The team then follows participants up with questionnaires one week and two months after the treatment week.

“We use a number of standardised self-report measures that have been widely used in many past clinical trials to measure symptom change. We’ll be looking at change from beforehand to after, but also in comparison to another study where the online panic program is run over two months. That’ll show us whether patients of both studies are getting similar outcomes,” Ms Stech explains.

People who struggle with panic disorder, are over the age of 18, live in Australia, have regular access to the internet and are interested in taking part in the one-week panic program can learn more on the team’s Virtual Clinic website.

Sleep Apnea Creates Gaps In Life Memories

January 31, 2019: RMIT University
People with sleep apnea struggle to remember details of memories from their own lives, potentially making them vulnerable to depression, new research has shown.

Estimated to affect more than 936 million people worldwide, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a serious condition that occurs when a person's breathing is interrupted during sleep.

People with OSA are known to suffer memory problems and also have higher rates of depression but it is not well understood how these issues are connected with the development of the disease.

The new study led by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, examined how the condition affected autobiographical memory and found people with untreated OSA had problems recalling specific details about their lives.

Lead investigator Dr Melinda Jackson said the research built on the known links between depression and memory.

"We know that overly general autobiographical memories -- where people don't remember many specific details of life events -- are associated with the development of persistent depression," Jackson said.

"Our study suggests sleep apnea may impair the brain's capacity to either encode or consolidate certain types of life memories, which makes it hard for people to recall details from the past.

"OSA is increasingly common, affecting up to 30% of elderly people and around one in four Australian men aged over 30.

"Sleep apnea is also a significant risk factor for depression so if we can better understand the neurobiological mechanisms at work, we have a chance to improve the mental health of millions of people."

The study compared 44 adults with untreated OSA to 44 healthy controls, assessing their recall of different types of autobiographical memories from their childhood, early adult life and recent life.

The results showed people with OSA had significantly more overgeneral memories -- 52.3% compared with 18.9% of the control group.

The study also looked at recall of semantic memory (facts and concepts from your personal history, like the names of your school teachers) and episodic memory (events or episodes, like your first day of high school).

While people with OSA struggled with semantic memory, their episodic memory was preserved. This is likely related to their fragmented sleeping patterns, as research has shown that good sleep is essential for the consolidation of semantic autobiographical memory.

Across both groups, being older was associated with having a higher number of overgeneral autobiographical memories while higher depression was linked to having worse semantic memory.

Jackson, a Vice-Chancellor's Senior Research Fellow in RMIT's School of Biomedical and Health Sciences, said the results showed the need for further studies to better understand the role of untreated OSA on memory processing.

"Brain scans of people with sleep apnea show they have a significant loss of grey matter from regions that overlap with the autobiographic memory network," she said.

"We need to look at whether there's a shared neurobiological mechanism at work -- that is, does the dysfunction of that network lead to both depression and memory problems in people with sleep apnea?"

Jackson said the use of CPAP machines to treat OSA had been shown to improve some of the cognitive impairments related to the condition.

"An important next step will be to determine whether successful treatment of sleep apnea can also help counter some of these memory issues or even restore the memories that have been lost."

About Sleep Apnoea
  • Sleep apnoea occurs when the muscles in the upper airway collapse during sleep, blocking off the airway above the voice box.
  • Breathing stops for a period of time (generally between 10 seconds and up to 1 minute) until the brain registers the lack of breathing or a drop in oxygen levels and sends a small wake-up call. The sleeper rouses slightly, opens the upper airway, typically snorts and gasps, then drifts back to sleep almost immediately. This pattern can repeat itself hundreds of times a night, causing fragmented sleep.
  • Around one in four men over the age of 30 years have some degree of sleep apnoea, making it more common than asthma.
  • Conservative treatment includes weight loss and cutting back on alcohol.
  • Active treatment includes nasal CPAP, mouthguards or surgical correction of upper airway obstruction.
  • Daytime sleepiness may distinguish simple snorers from people with sleep apnoea.

Neha Delhikar, Lucy Sommers, Genevieve Rayner, Rachel Schembri, Stephen R. Robinson, Sarah Wilson, Melinda L. Jackson. Autobiographical Memory From Different Life Stages in Individuals With Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S1355617718001091

Earth's Continental Nurseries Discovered Beneath Mountains

January 29, 2019: Rice University
In his free time last summer, Rice University geoscientist Ming Tang made a habit of comparing the niobium content in various rocks in a global minerals database. What he found was worth skipping a few nights out with friends.

In a paper published this month by Nature Communications, Tang, Rice petrologist Cin-Ty Lee and colleagues offered an answer to one of Earth science's fundamental questions: Where do continents form?

"If our conclusions are correct, every piece of land that we are now sitting on got its start someplace like the Andes or Tibet, with very mountainous surfaces," said Tang, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate in Rice's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences (EEPS). "Today, most places are flat because that is the stable stage of the continental crust. But what we found was that when the crust formed, it had to start out with mountain-building processes."

The connection between niobium, one of Earth's rarest elements, and continent formation is a story that plays out over billions of years at scales as small as molecules and as large as mountain ranges. The leading players are niobium and tantalum, rare metals so alike that geologists often think of them as twins.

"They have very similar chemical properties and behave almost identically in most geological processes," Tang said. "If you measure tantalum and niobium, you find that their ratio is nearly constant in Earth's mantle. That means that when you find more niobium in a rock, you will find more tantalum, and when you find less niobium, you will find less tantalum."

The mantle is Earth's thickest layer, spanning about 1,800 miles between the planet's core and its thin outer crust. Earth scientists believe that little, if anything, moves between the mantle and core, but the mantle and everything above it -- seafloor, oceans, continents and atmosphere -- are connected, and many of the atoms on Earth's surface today, including the atoms in humans and other living things, have cycled through the mantle one or more times in Earth's 4.6 billion years.

The rocks in continents are an exception. Geologists have found some that are up to 4 billion years old, which means they were formed near the surface and stayed on the surface, without being recycled into the mantle. That's due in part to the nature of continental crust, which is far less dense than the basaltic rocks beneath Earth's oceans. Lee, professor and EEPS department chair, said it's no coincidence that Earth is the only rocky planet known to have both continents and life.

"Every day we live on continents, and we take most of our resources from continents," Lee said. "We have oxygen in the air to breath and just the right temperature to support complex life. These things are so common that we take them for granted, but Earth didn't start off with these conditions. They developed later in Earth's history. And the emergence of continents is one of the things that shaped our planet and made it more livable."

Scientists still lack details about how continents got their start and how they grew to cover 30 percent of Earth's surface, but one big clue relates to niobium and tantalum, the geochemical twins.

"On average, the rocks in continental crust have about 20 percent less niobium than they should compared to the rock we see everywhere else," Tang said. "We believe this missing niobium is tied to the mystery of continents. By solving or finding the missing the niobium, we can get important information about how continents form."

Geologists have known about the imbalance for decades. And it certainly suggests that the geochemical processes that produce continental crust also remove niobium. But where was the missing niobium?

That nagging question prompted Tang to spend his free time perusing records in the Max Planck Institute's GEOROC database, a comprehensive global collection of published analyses of volcanic rocks.

Based on those searches and months of follow-up tests, Tang, Lee and colleagues offer the first physical evidence that "arclogites" (pronounced ARC-loh-jyts) are responsible for the missing niobium. Arclogites are cumulates, the leftover dross that accumulates near the base of continental arcs. On rare occasions, chunks of these cumulates erupt onto the surface from volcanos.

The Rice group first sent arclogite samples that Lee had collected in Arizona to their collaborator, Kang Chen, a research fellow based at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan. Chen spent a month getting precise readings of the relative amounts of niobium and tantalum in the samples. The rocks were created when the High Sierras were an active continental arc, like the Andes today.

Chen's tests confirmed high niobium-tantalum ratios, but to better understand the mechanism by which this signature was developed, Tang and Lee used high precision laser ablation and "inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry" in Lee's laboratory at Rice to reveal the mineral rutile was responsible.

"Rutile is the mineral that hosts the niobium," he said. "It's a naturally occurring form of titanium oxide, and it is what actually 'sees' the difference between niobium and tantalum and captures one more than the other."

But that happens only under specific conditions. For example, Tang said that at temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius, rutile traps normal ratios of tantalum and niobium. It only begins to prefer niobium when temperatures drop below 1,000 degrees Celsius. Tang said the only known place with that set of conditions is deep beneath continental arcs, like the Andes today or the High Sierras about 80 million years ago.

"The reason you need high pressure is that titanium oxide is relatively rare," he said. "You need very high pressure to force it to crystalize and fall out of the magma."

In an earlier arclogite study published in Science Advances last May, Tang and Lee discovered a subtle chemical signature that can explain why continental crust is iron-depleted. Lee said that finding and the discovery about rutile and niobium illustrate the central importance of continental arcs in Earth history.

"Continental arcs are like a magic system that links everything together, from climate and oxygen concentrations in the atmosphere to ore deposits," Lee said. "They're a sink for carbon dioxide after they die. They can drive greenhouse or icehouse, and they are the building blocks of continents."

Ming Tang, Cin-Ty A. Lee, Kang Chen, Monica Erdman, Gelu Costin, Hehe Jiang. Nb/Ta systematics in arc magma differentiation and the role of arclogites in continent formation. Nature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-08198-3

The central Andes Mountains and surrounding landscape, as seen in this true-color image from NASA’s Terra spacecraft, formed over the past 170 million years as the Nazca Plate lying under the Pacific Ocean has forced its way under the South American Plate.
Credit: NASA

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