Inbox and Environment News: Issue 449

May 10 - 16, 2020: Issue 449

Echidna Season

Echidna season has begun.  As cooler days approach, our beautiful echidnas are more active during the days as they come out to forage for food and find a mate. This sadly results in a HIGH number of vehicle hits.

What to do if you find an Echidna on the road?

  • Safely remove the Echidna off the road (providing its safe to do so).
  • Call Sydney Wildlife or WIRES
  •  Search the surrounding area for a puggle (baby echidna). The impact from a vehicle incident can cause a puggle to roll long distances from mum, so please search for these babies, they can look like a pinky-grey clump of clay

What to do if you find an echidna in your yard?

  • Leave the Echidna alone, remove the threat (usually a family pet) and let the Echidna move away in it's own time. It will move along when it doesn't feel threatened.

If you find an injured echidna or one in an undesirable location, please call Sydney Wildlife on 9413 4300 for advice.

Lynleigh Greig, Sydney Wildlife, with a rescued echidna being returned to its home

Recent Australian Wildfires Made Worse By Logging

May 6, 2020: University of Queensland

Logging of native forests increases the risk and severity of fire and likely had a profound effect on the recent, catastrophic Australian bushfires, according to new research.

In the wake of the country's worst forest fires in recorded history, University of Queensland researchers have been part of an international collaboration, investigating Australia's historical and contemporary land-use.

UQ Professor and Wildlife Conservation Society Director James Watson said logging regimes have made many forests more fire prone for a host of reasons.

"Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height," Professor Watson said.

"It can leave up to 450 tonnes of combustible fuel per hectare close to the ground -- by any measure, that's an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes.

"By allowing these practices to increase fire severity and flammability, we undermine the safety of some of our rural communities.

"It affects wildlife too by creating habitat loss, fragmentation and disturbance for many species, with major negative effects on forest wildlife."

Lead author, Australian National University's Professor David Lindenmayer, said there are land management actions we can take to stop these fires from occurring in the future.

"The first is to prevent logging of moist forests, particularly those close to urban areas," Professor Lindenmayer said.

"We must also reduce forest fragmentation by proactively restoring some previously logged forests.

"In the event of wildfires, land managers must avoid practices such as 'salvage' logging -- or logging of burnt forests -- which severely reduces recovery of a forest."

The Federal Government has launched a Royal Commission to find ways to improve Australia's preparedness, resilience, and response to natural disasters.

Researcher Michelle Ward, from UQ's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said it was time for government to act.

"We urge policy makers to recognise and account for the critical values of intact, undisturbed native forests, not only for the protection of biodiversity, but for human safety," Ms Ward said.

"Let's act strongly and swiftly for the sake of our communities, the species they house, our climate and Australia's wild heritage."

David B. Lindenmayer, Robert M. Kooyman, Chris Taylor, Michelle Ward, James E. M. Watson. Recent Australian wildfires made worse by logging and associated forest management. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1195-5

Saving Energy And Lives: How A Solar Chimney Can Boost Fire Safety

May 6, 2020: RMIT University

A must-have in green building design, solar chimneys can slash energy costs up to 50%. Now research reveals they could also help save lives in a building fire.

In a world-first, researchers designed a solar chimney optimised for both energy saving and fire safety, as part of the sustainable features of a new building in Melbourne, Australia.

Modelling shows the specially-designed solar chimney radically increases the amount of time people have to escape the building during a fire -- extending the safe evacuation time from about two minutes to over 14 minutes.

A solar chimney is a passive solar heating and cooling system that harnesses natural ventilation to regulate the temperature of a building.

With an estimated 19% of the world's energy resources going to heating, ventilating and cooling buildings, integrating solar chimneys into new builds and retrofitting to existing structures offers great potential for reducing this massive environmental cost.

In the new project, a collaboration between RMIT University and the City of Kingston, researchers designed a solar chimney to maximise its efficiency for both ventilating fresh air and sucking smoke out of a building in case of fire.

Researcher Dr Long Shi said solar chimneys have well established environmental credentials, but their potential for improving fire safety had not been explored.

"In an emergency situation where every second counts, giving people more time to escape safely is critical," Shi said.

"Our research demonstrates that solar chimneys offer powerful benefits for both people's safety and the environment.

"Delivering on two important functions could boosts the already strong cost-effectiveness of this sustainable technology.

"We hope our findings will inspire more investment and development of solar chimneys in Australia, and around the world."

Kingston Mayor Georgina Oxley said Council was excited to be a part of the groundbreaking project.

"Creating new and innovative ways of reducing energy consumption in our building design is something that is a priority for Council," Oxley said.

"The solar-chimney that has been installed at the new state-of-the-art Mentone Reserve Pavilion not only allows us to harness clean green energy to heat and cool the building, helping Council achieve its environmental goals, but it also has the potential to save lives in the event of a fire. This is a truly remarkable design."

While calculations around the 6-fold increase in safe evacuation time were specific to the new building, previous research by the team from RMIT's School of Engineering has confirmed solar chimneys can successfully achieve both functions -- ventilation and smoke exhaustion.

Hot air rises: how a solar chimney works

The passive design approach behind solar chimneys operates on the well-known principle that hot air always rises.

Modern solar chimneys usually feature a wall of glass next to a wall that is painted black, to maximise the absorption of solar radiation. Vents at the top and bottom control the airflow in and out of the chimney for heating or cooling.

As the sun warms the chimney, this heats the air inside it.

The hot air rises and is vented out of the top of the chimney, which draws more air in at the bottom, driving ventilation through a building to naturally cool it down.

When it's cold outside, the chimney can be closed, to direct the absorbed heat back into the building and keep it warm.

It's an ingeniously simple concept that is relatively cheap to retrofit and adds almost no extra cost to a new build, but can drive energy consumption down.

Reducing smoke, increasing safety

During a fire, the same principle -- hot air rises -- enables the solar chimney to suck smoke out of the building.

Less smoke means better visibility, lower temperatures and reduced carbon monoxide -- all of which contribute to increasing the amount of time people have to safely evacuate.

To understand exactly how much evacuation time a solar chimney could deliver for a specific building, you need to model for that exact design, Shi said.

"This will differ from building to building, but we know that any extra time is precious and improves fire safety, which could ultimately help to save lives," he said.

The new research offers a technical guide for optimising the design and engineering of solar chimneys in real buildings, to expand their application across the two functions.

Long Shi, Anthony Ziem, Guomin Zhang, Jie Li, Sujeeva Setunge. SOLAR CHIMNEY FOR A REAL BUILDING CONSIDERING BOTH ENERGY-SAVING AND FIRE SAFETY – A CASE STUDY. Energy and Buildings, 2020; 110016 DOI: 10.1016/j.enbuild.2020.110016

In a world first, RMIT researchers have designed a solar chimney optimised for both energy saving and fire safety, as part of the sustainable features of a new building in Melbourne.

NSW Hunters Provided Licence Relief & Access Back Into State Forests

May 6, 2020: NSW DPI

The State’s hunters who hold a Restricted Licence (R-Licence) will have the duration of their licences extended by four weeks after recreational hunting areas in State Forests were closed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 last month.

Minister for Agriculture Adam Marshall announced the extension today, saying it would reimburse hunters for the time they were unable to access State Forests.

Mr Marshall also announced that from today, the booking system would reopen, allowing hunters back into State Forests from Friday as part of the easing of COVID-19 movement restrictions.

“This is really good news for the almost 19,000 R-Licence hunters across NSW,” Mr Marshall said.

“This extension means that all R-Licences will have an extra four weeks added to their licences, the same period they were unable to access the State Forests booking and hunting maps.”

“I encourage hunters to renew their licences to take advantage of the extension. For those hunters whose R-Licences lapsed during the suspension period and do not wish to renew, a pro-rata refund will also be available.”

Mr Marshall said the decision to re-open State Forests for hunting was not made lightly.

“The hunting community was extremely understanding of the need to suspend access to State Forests as part of the broader COVID-19 response and extending their current license is a small thing we can do to get the hunting community back into swing,” he said.

“I want to urge hunters to still closely follow social distancing guidelines and respect measures that might be in place to assist with that, including any advice from State Forests regarding camping and facilities use.

“However, this is not an excuse for people to pack their bags and head on a holiday to a regional area – that is still not allowed.”

R-Licence holders are able to hunt game and feral animals on public land that has been declared and opened to hunting, or on private land with the permission of the landholder.

On 6 April 2020, all hunting in State Forests was suspended until further notice due to the outbreak of COVID-19, which impacted 18,821 R-Licence holders.

For more information and updates about hunting in NSW State forests visit: and the NSW DPI Hunting Facebook page.

Heavy Fines For Illegal Firewood Collection In National Parks

May 5, 2020

As the weather cools, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is reminding residents across the Central West that it is illegal to collect firewood in national parks, state conservation areas and nature reserves.

NPWS Central West Area Manager Fiona Buchanan said it is important that residents around Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo, Condobolin, Forbes and Grenfell are aware of the heavy fines that apply.

“We are getting the message out there that collecting firewood, including dead wood and fallen trees, is not permitted in national parks,” Ms Buchanan said.

“Dead hollow-bearing trees and woody debris provide habitat for many endangered native animals in the Central West. Illegally cutting down dead trees and removing this fallen timber for firewood destroys critical habitat that these animals depend on for survival.

“We want residents in the Central West to understand that fallen timber in our national parks is not a low-cost option for heating during the winter.

“NPWS uses surveillance cameras in parks to detect illegal activities, including firewood collection. On-the-spot-fines apply, and very large fines can be handed out by the courts.

“Last year, three individuals in Forbes received $7,100 in fines and court costs for illegal firewood collecting,” she said.

Firewood collection is permitted in some Forestry Corporation state forests, however those wishing to collect firewood must obtain a permit before doing so and ensure that they follow the associated permit conditions. Firewood permits are available online at Forestry Corporation of NSW

Funding Available To Help Restock Our Rivers

May 6, 2020

The NSW Government is calling on anglers, community groups, councils and others to apply for funding under the Dollar for Dollar Native Fish Stocking program, with applications now open.

NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) Senior Fisheries Manager, Cameron Westaway said the Dollar for Dollar program complements the NSW Government’s native fish stocking recovery plan, by increasing fish stocking activities.

“This program is an investment in the future of our recreational fisheries,” Mr Westaway said.

“Fish stocking activities play an important role in our communities, providing greater recreational fishing opportunities in the region, as well as a number of cultural, environmental, social and economic benefits.

“Under the 2020/2021 program, the NSW Government will match funding between $1,000 and $6,000 for fish stocking activities involving high priority recreational fishing species including Australian Bass, Golden Perch and Murray Cod.

“In support of this, applicants can also apply for a fuel card grant, to provide assistance for transporting fish from hatcheries.”

Mr Westaway said the program is great example of NSW fishing licence fees at work, with funding provided from the Recreational Fishing Trust.

“The Dollar for Dollar Native Fish Stocking program allows for hundreds of thousands of fish to be stocked into various NSW waterways each season, through the support of locals who know their area best.

“Of course, it is important that all fish stocking is conducted responsibly in order to protect biodiversity and the aquatic environment and releasing fish into NSW public waters without a permit is illegal,” Mr Westaway said.

Applications can be made via the online form, and close on Friday 26 June 2020. For more information visit the NSW DPI website,

Narrabri Coal To Pay $120,000 After Mine Waste Caused Landfill Fires

April 28, 2020

Narrabri Coal Operations Pty Ltd will pay $120,000 to the Environmental Trust as part of an Enforceable Undertaking agreed with the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) for allegedly transporting hazardous waste which subsequently caused a series of fires at the Narrabri landfill.

“The Narrabri Shire Council landfill had a number of fires in early to mid-April 2019 allegedly caused by equipment from the Narrabri Coal mine disposed of at the landfill,’’ said EPA Director Regulatory Operations Metro North Adam Gilligan.

“The EPA investigation found that after a training exercise at the mine, over 100 self-rescuer units were put into an industrial bin which was then taken to the landfill.”

Self-rescuer units supply workers with oxygen during incidents in underground mines. The units contained between 90 and 120 kilograms of potassium hydroxide, which is classified as a corrosive dangerous good as it can generate very high pH levels when exposed to liquids.

“These units should not have been disposed of at the landfill as they are classified as hazardous waste, which the landfill is not authorised to receive.

“When split open by compaction of the landfill cell, chemicals from the units can ignite. This is not only a safety issue but a breach of hazardous waste rules.”

Mr Gilligan said the EPA considers that the incident breached Narrabri Coal’s licence and the company’s waste transport obligations.

Following the incident Narrabri Coal hired a contractor to manually search through 700 cubic metres of general waste to try to recover the self-rescue units. A five-week search recovered 12 of the units. An ongoing clean-up operation continues within the impacted waste cell to ensure the site is safe for workers and the environmental impacts are addressed.

Enforceable undertakings are a tool the EPA can use as an alternative to prosecution. The legally binding agreements are designed to prevent similar incidents occurring in the future and improve environmental outcomes.

The $120,000 that Narrabri Coal will pay to the Environmental Trust as part of the agreement will be provided to Narrabri Shire Council to help to fund the development of a new waste cell at the landfill.

The company will also alert all Whitehaven Coal Limited mines about the incident, pay the EPA’s legal and investigation costs, design a compulsory training module for employees on management of hazardous substances and present about the incident and key lessons at a NSW Minerals Council Environment and Community Committee meeting.

For more information about the EPA’s regulatory tools, see the EPA Compliance Policy or read the enforceable undertakings guidelines.

Enforceable undertaking agreements can be viewed on the public register

NSW Government’s Digital Decision A ''Disgrace'' For Communities Suffering From Coal And Gas

April 30, 2020

The NSW Government’s decision to enable digital hearings for two extremely controversial resource projects in NSW’s north west will prevent many people from having their say, according to Lock the Gate Alliance.

This morning, the NSW Government confirmed via the media that it is amending the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation to permit the Independent Planning Commission to hold the digital hearings.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes had earlier directed the IPC to find a way to hold public hearings for Santos’ coal seam gas project and Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion, despite the coronavirus crisis restrictions on public gatherings.

In response, Lock the Gate Alliance wrote to the Minister and the IPC, warning them that holding public hearings online or on the phone would be unlawful and would restrict community participation due to lack of access to technology, computer literacy, and reliable phone and internet connections in regional areas. 

The Narrabri Gas Project is the most controversial project to ever work through the NSW Planning assessment process, with more than 22,000 objections to the coal seam gas proposal. 

“Many people living in north west NSW will struggle to participate in digital hearings because they live on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Lock the Gate NSW coordinator Georgina Woods said.

“These hearings remove the community’s legal rights to have the merits of any decision challenged in court, so it’s vitally important that they are thorough and inclusive.” 

Eric Hannan, who lives in a rented house on the historic “Kurrumbede” property with his wife Carol, and owns land adjacent to the planned Vickery railway line, said the decision to hold digital meetings was “wrong.”

Mr Hannan, who is aged in his seventies and worked as a stockman on Kurrumbede for 40 years, said a public, in-person hearing would have provided him an opportunity to point out Whitehaven’s false claims about how the property would be impacted by the mine.

“We had a public meeting before and it was good because you could get up and have your say,” he said.

“You can look at the people, and you can see the IPC people listening to you.

“When Whitehaven’s employees got up, I was able to point out when they were lying. If it’s all digital we’ll have none of that. I’ve worked on this property for 40 years and I know it damn well better than they do.”

Tony Pickard, who lives adjacent to Santos’ proposed Narrabri gasfield, said he and other locals would now be restricted from having their say.

“There are many people in the north west who lack quality internet connection and I am one of them,” Mr Pickard said.

“I’m right at the front line of potential damage from this gasfield. I have a right to be heard and to hear what Santos, the Government and all speakers have to say at any public hearing about this project. 

“By forcing the Planning Commission to go ahead with this process while people are locked in their homes, the Planning Minister is showing a deep lack of respect for people in this region that will be harmed by this gasfield. It’s a disgrace.”

Logging Intensity To Increase Six-Fold As Forest Corp Pledges To Maintain Wood Supply

May 1, 2020

The NSW Forestry Corporation’s determination to supply the same volume of timber after the devastating bushfires will see logging intensity increase six-fold in forests on the South Coast and double on the North Coast. 

Forestry Corporation documents released through parliamentary processes show for the first time the full extent of damage to native forests in the corporation’s portfolio. [1] 

The data shows 85% of the native forests designated for logging on the South Coast and 44% of those on the North Coast were burnt during the bushfire crisis.

Despite the extent of fire damage, the state-owned logging company has told wood supply contract holders it is confident it can maintain supply.

“This can only be done by increasing the logging intensity in viable forests, which will be devastating for koalas and other forest species,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“Maintaining supply from the southern forests where only 15% of the public native forest estate was unscathed will require a six-fold increase in logging intensity in those unburnt areas.

“On the North Coast, where about 56% of the public native forest estate was unburnt, this would require a doubling of logging intensity in those unburnt areas.

“Even before the fires, our native forests were being logged too hard and too often to allow them to recover between harvests.

“If the Forestry Corporation insists on supplying the same volume of timber after such devastation, our forests will be stripped and will take generations to recover, if they can  at all.”

The Federal Government announced in December that 30% of the Mid-north Coast’s koalas died in the fires, yet the NSW Government continues to log koala habitat as if nothing has changed. 

“Right now, we know that koala habitat is being logged in unburnt Lower Bucca and Nambucca state forests near Coffs Harbour,” Mr Gambian said.

“Koalas are struggling after the worst bushfires on record. Logging their habitat for wood chips and floorboards should not be allowed. This is totally unacceptable.” 

Mr Gambian said the government must pause all native forest logging until the full ecological impacts of the fires are assessed and publicly reported; and renegotiate wood supply agreements to ensure logging operations do not exceed the intensity of pre-fire levels.

The Nature Conservation Council supports a government assistance package for the forest industry and its employees during this very difficult time. Any such assistance package must require a commitment to the transition from native forests to sustainably managed plantations and a just structural adjustment package for contractors, mill owners and employees.


[1] Forestry Corporation Letter: RE: Force Majeure Notice – Type A, B, C, D Wood Supply Agreement (WSA), Parcel Sale (PSA)  

Westpac Climate Policy Leaves Governments In The Dust

May 5, 2020

The Nature Conservation Council welcomes Westpac’s commitment to stop funding thermal coal mines and power stations by 2030 and urges the federal government to match the bank’s level of ambition.

Westpac is reportedly the 30th major international financial institution this year to declare it was abandoning coal. The company also aims to provide $3.5 billion of new finance for climate change solutions over three years so its own operations have net zero emissions by 2025. [1] 

“If Westpac can quit thermal coal by 2030, then the federal government can also quit coal by 2030,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“NSW still burns coal for 80% of its electricity and the federal government is stuck in the past without a plan to transition to clean energy. This can and must change.”

Westpac joins CommBank and Australia’s three major insurers in committing to quit thermal coal by 2030 or earlier. 

“The big banks and insurers are moving because it is in their shareholders’ interests. The federal government must also act because it is in the interests of all Australian citizens to quit coal.

“In the post coronavirus world, investing in clean energy will be the best way to drive economic recovery and create a sustainable society.” 

[1] Westpac abandons funding for thermal coal mining, SMH-Age, 5-5-20

Aren’t We In A Drought? The Australian Black Coal Industry Uses Enough Water For Over 5 Million People

May 4, 2020
By Ian Overton, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide

Water is a highly contested resource in this long, oppressive drought, and the coal industry is one of Australia’s biggest water users.

Research released today, funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, has identified how much water coal mining and coal-fired power stations actually use in New South Wales and Queensland. The answer? About 383 billion litres of fresh water every year.

That’s the same amount 5.2 million people, or more than the entire population of Greater Sydney, uses in the same period. And it’s about 120 times the water used by wind and solar to generate the same amount of electricity.

Monitoring how much water is used by industry is vital for sustainable water management. But a lack of transparency about how much water Australia’s coal industry uses makes this very difficult.

Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine in central Queensland was granted a water licence that allows the company to take as much groundwater as it wants, despite fears it will damage aquifers and groundwater-dependent rivers.

Now more than ever, we must make sure water use by coal mines and power stations are better monitored and managed.

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Shutterstock

Why does coal need so much water?

Mines in NSW and Queensland account for 96% of Australia’s black coal production.

Almost all water used in coal mines is consumed and cannot be reused. Water is used for coal processing, handling and preparation, dust suppression, on-site facilities, irrigation, vehicle washing and more.

Coal mining’s water use rate equates to a total consumption of almost 225 billion litres a year in NSW and Queensland, which can be extrapolated to 234 billion litres for Australia, for black coal without considering brown coal.

About 80% of this water is freshwater from rainfall and runoff, extracted from rivers and water bodies, groundwater inflows or transferred from other mines. Mines are located in regions such as the Darling Downs, the Hunter River and the Namoi River in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The other 20% comes from water already contained in tailings (mine residue), recycled water or seepage from the mines.

The burning of coal to generate energy is also a large water user. Water use in coal-fired power stations is even harder to quantify, with a report from 2009 providing the only available data.

Water is used for cooling with power stations using either a once-through flow or recirculating water system.

The water consumed becomes toxic wastewater stored in ash ponds or is evaporated during cooling processes. Water withdrawn is returned to rivers which can damage aquatic life due to the increased temperature.

No transparency

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Despite the development of Australian and international water accounting frameworks, there is no reporting to these standards in coal mine reports.

This lack of consistent and available data means water use by the coal industry, and its negative effects, is not widely reported or understood. The problem is compounded by complex regulatory frameworks that allow gaps in water-use reporting.

A patchwork of government agencies in each state regulate water licences, quality and discharge, coal mine planning, annual reviews of mine operations and water and environmental impacts. This means that problems can fall through the gaps.

Wind and solar energy uses 120 times less water to generate the same amount of electricity. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Digging for data

An analysis of annual reviews from 39 coal mines in NSW, provided data on water licences and details of water used in different parts of the mine.

Although they are part of mandatory reporting, the method of reporting water use is not standardised. The reviews are required to report against surface water and groundwater licences, but aren’t required to show a comprehensive water balanced account. Annual reviews for Queensland coal mines were not available.

Collated water use — both water consumption and water withdrawal – showed coal mining consumes approximately 653 litres for each tonne of coal produced.

This rate is 2.5 times more than a previous water-use rate of 250 litres per tonne, from research in 2010.

Using this rate the total water consumed by coal mining is 40% more than the total amount of water reported for all types of mining in NSW and Queensland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the same year.

By the numbers

NSW and Queensland coal-fired power stations annually consume 158,300 megalitres of water. One megalitre is equivalent to one million litres.

A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station uses enough water in one year to meet the basic water needs of nearly 700,000 people. NSW and Queensland have 18,000 megawatts of capacity.

Coal-fired generation uses significantly more water than other types of energy.

In total, coal mining and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of freshwater a year – about 4.3% of all freshwater available in those states.

The value of this water is between A$770 million and A$2.49 billion (using a range of low to high security water licence costs).

They withdraw 2,353 billion litres of freshwater per year.

Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The problem with large water use

Coal mining is concentrated in a few regions, such as the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin, which are also important for farming and agriculture.

In NSW and Queensland, the coal industry withdraws about 30% as much water as is withdrawn for agriculture, and this is concentrated in the few regions.

Coal mining and power stations use water through licenses to access surface water and groundwater, and from unlicensed capturing of rainfall and runoff.

This can reduce stream flow and groundwater levels, which can threaten ecosystem habitats if not managed in context of other water users. Cumulative effects of multiple mines in one region can increase the risk to other water users.

The need for an holistic approach

A lack of available data remains a significant challenge to understanding the true impact of coal mining and coal-fired power on Australia’s water resources.

To improve transparency and increase trust in the coal industry, accounting for water consumed, withdrawn and impacted by coal mining should be standardised to report on full water account balances.

The coal industry should also be subject to mandatory monthly reporting and a single, open-access point of water data must be created. Comprehensive water modelling must be updated yearly and audited.

Coal water use must be managed in a holistic manner with the elevation of water accounting to a single government agency or common database.

Australia has a scarce water supply, and our environment and economy depend on the sustainable and equitable sharing of this resource.

This article was published first in The Conversationclick here to read the original item. Republished under a Creative Commons licence.

One Small Area Of Ocean Not Changed By Global Warming

May 6, 2020

Climate and marine scientists are observing pervasive warming of the ocean and the land surfaces across the globe. Since the middle of the 19th century, the average global temperature recorded on the land surface has risen by around one degree centigrade, and by 0.6 degrees across the ocean surface. Global warming has been most pronounced in the alpine regions and the Arctic.

Over the period 1982 to 2011, however, a cooling trend was recorded in surface waters in some parts of the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic continent, specifically in the area south of 55 degrees latitude. This cooling was strongest in the Pacific sector of the Southern Ocean, where the ocean surface cooled by around 0.1°C per decade, and the weakest in the Indian and parts of the Atlantic sectors.

Climate and marine scientists have so far been unable to provide satisfactory explanations as to why parts of the Southern Ocean have bucked the trend of global warming. Now a group of scientists led by ETH Professor Nicolas Gruber has solved the puzzle with the help of simulations with a high-resolution ocean model.

Changes in temperature and salinity of the Southern Ocean between 1982 and 2011 (from Haumann et al, AGU Adv 2020)

Simulations highlight the influence of sea ice

In a paper just published in the journal AGU Advances, the scientists use a series of simulations to show that sea-ice changes are the most probable cause for the cooling of the surface waters in the Southern Ocean. Only when Alex Haumann, lead author and Professor Gruber's former doctoral student, and the team incorporated the observed changes in sea ice into the model were they able to correctly replicate the observed pattern of the temperature changes. When they omitted this effect and only took into account the other potential factors -- such as a more vigorous ocean circulation or increased freshwater fluxes from the melting of the Antarctic glaciers -- the pattern was not accurately simulated.

Their considering of the role of sea ice in causing the surface cooling was based on the observation that over the same period as the cooling took place, i.e., from 1982 to 2011, the sea-ice extent steadily increased in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, while in the Arctic it shrunk significantly over the same period.

A few years ago, Haumann and Gruber and various colleagues already discovered the reason for this expansion of sea ice in the Southern Ocean. They noticed that stronger southerly winds over this period propelled more of the sea ice that is being formed along the coast out into the open sea, enhancing the melting there. The resulting stronger conveyor belt enhanced the transport of freshwater from near the continent out into the open ocean. This is because when sea ice is being formed from seawater, the salt is left behind, whereas when the sea ice melts in the summer well away from the coast, the freshwater is released into the surface, reducing the salinity of the seawater there.

This reduction in surface salinity strengthened the vertical stratification of the seawater: the fresher, and in this part of the ocean lighter water stays in the upper 100 m, while the denser saltier water remains below. In general, the saltier and colder the water, the greater its density and the greater its depth in the ocean.

Smaller heat exchange between the water layers

The stronger stratification reduced the exchange of heat between the deeper layers and the surface water, causing the heat to remain trapped at depth. In addition, the air above the Southern Ocean during winter is generally colder than the temperature of the seawater. Combined with the reduction of the vertical exchange of heat in the ocean, this ultimately created the observed situation where the surface water cooled and the subsurface warmed.

The strong role of salinity in controlling the vertical stratification is a peculiarity of the Southern Ocean, since there is actually very little difference in temperature between the ocean's surface water and the subsurface: only a few tenths of a degree. The strong salinity driven stratification also explains why the surface cooling did not induce deep mixing.

No material to feed global warming sceptics

"The cooling of the Southern Ocean over three decades is really unusual, bearing in mind that otherwise all other parts of the planet, especially the land surface, have warmed up," says Nicolas Gruber.

Cooling in just one area of the ocean should not be interpreted as a reduction of the long-term warming of the global climate system as a whole. It is merely a redistribution of heat in the Southern Ocean from the surface to the deeper layers of the ocean. "We assume the strong winds pushing the sea ice in the Southern Ocean northward are potentially a side-effect of climate change," Gruber stresses. "Climate change is clearly man-made and cannot be disputed simply because one area of the ocean shows signs of cooling."

In addition, the current study went only up to 2011. "We have observed a trend reversal since 2015. The sea ice around the Antarctic is now starting to recede at a rapid rate," says the ETH Professor. "And this is very much in line with the overall trend of continuing global warming."

F. Alexander Haumann, Nicolas Gruber, Matthias Münnich. Sea‐Ice Induced Southern Ocean Subsurface Warming and Surface Cooling in a Warming Climate. AGU Advances, 2020; 1 (2) DOI: 10.1029/2019AV000132

More Rescue Missions Possible As Platypuses Rehomed

May 1, 2020

UNSW scientists expect more platypus rescues in future as climate change takes a stranglehold on their natural habitat.

A platypus prepares for tagging at Taronga Wildlife Hospital before release at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Photo: ACT Government

UNSW researchers have launched a platypus monitoring study after returning three of the unique creatures to their home at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra.

Scientists from UNSW Sydney, Taronga Conservation Society and Tidbinbilla yesterday released the platypuses implanted with tracking devices.

The platypuses were among a group which Taronga Zoo temporarily rehomed in late December because their waterways had dried up during extreme drought.

In the months since, rain renewed their ponds, enabling the platypuses to now return home.

Three more tagged platypuses will be released in coming weeks.

But researchers worry that these rescues will become more common to save platypus populations from drying rivers in light of climate change projections.

Dr Gilad Bino, a researcher at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, said the collaboration between UNSW, Taronga and Tidbinbilla would enable scientists to better understand the movements and habits of these secretive animals.

“This project will provide never-before-studied insights into the habitat use, movement behaviour and interactions of platypuses during the next 18 months,” Dr Bino said.

“What we learn will improve our understanding of platypus habitat use and requirements, as well as the ecosystem's capacity to sustain a platypus population.

“In addition, the study will examine post-release behaviour and the re-acclimatisation success of these animals to inform future rescue strategies as droughts become more frequent under predicted climate change.”

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve where the platypuses returned home. Photo: ACT Government

Habitat condition impacts platypus

Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, said a key part of the project would focus on investigating the impact of habitat condition and habitat use.

“So, we will also monitor water availability and quality, as well as prey availability – platypus feed on macro-invertebrates, such as insects and yabbies,” Prof Kingsford said.

“We anticipate the findings will advance our understanding of platypus habitat requirements – not only for Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve but also for wild platypus populations across Australia.”

Dr Bino thanked Taronga Conservation Society and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve for working with UNSW on the new study.

“We all understand how important it is to study the platypus: it’s an iconic aquatic species but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists its conservation status as ‘Near Threatened’ because of continuing population declines and threats,” Dr Bino said.

“Our previous research found the platypus was increasingly threatened – the increased frequency and severity of drought and fire within a changing climate will likely pose significant challenges to the long-term viability of already degraded and fragmented platypus populations.

“Under projected climate change conditions, the rescue of platypuses from drying rivers in extreme drought may become a necessary strategy to maintain platypus populations.

“Consequently, there is a genuine need to understand platypus habitat use under different conditions, as well as the success of platypus re-acclimatisation when returned to their natural environment.”

A platypus has a health check at Taronga Wildlife Hospital before returning to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Photo: ACT Government

Platypuses thrived while away

Taronga Wildlife Conservation Officer Dr Phoebe Meagher said Taronga scientists were thrilled to return the first three platypuses back home to Tidbinbilla.

“During their stay at Taronga our platypus keepers went above and beyond to keep these animals healthy and to ensure they kept their natural behaviours,” Dr Meagher said.

“They achieved this by limiting their contact with the Tidbinbilla platypus, supplying live food for active foraging and keeping them separate from Taronga’s own animals.

“From a research perspective, having the platypus at Taronga allowed us to collect samples during their veterinary health checks that will contribute to our research on this elusive Australian species.”

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is home to an estimated 10 to 15 platypuses and other native animals that were evacuated during summer, including brush-tailed rock-wallabies and eastern bettongs.

Subsidies Drive Murray-Darling Basin Extractions As Environment Loses

May 1, 2020

Subsidised irrigators extracted up to 28 per cent more water than those who received no funds under a national Murray-Darling Basin irrigation efficiency program, a new study has found.

The Murray Darling Basin during drought. Photo: Shutterstock

The Australian Government’s $4 billion irrigation efficiency program has led to irrigators who received irrigation infrastructure subsidies extracting up to 28 per cent more water in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) than those who did not receive any funds – affecting the environment and other users, new research has found.

Water management experts across disciplines from UNSW, The University of Adelaide, Australian National University (ANU) and the Environmental Defenders Office examined the impact of taxpayer-funded irrigation infrastructure upgrades on water extractions and environmental water recovery in the MDB.

Their findings, published in the international journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling this week, analysed almost 2500 on-farm MDB irrigation surveys, with surveys in 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, identifying a “rebound effect” of increased water extractions, coinciding with the Australian Government’s investment in irrigation infrastructure upgrades.

Combined with documented concerns around measurement of water and compliance, this raises serious doubts about the true extent to which environmental flows are increasing at a catchment and basin level, as a consequence of the subsidised upgrades.

Lead author and resource economist Professor Sarah Wheeler from The University of Adelaide said: “Our analysis over the past decade found that irrigators who received infrastructure grants actually increased their water extraction volumes by 21 to 28 per cent, compared to irrigators who received no subsidies.”

The subsidies aim to help irrigators upgrade their infrastructure technology to save water and return some savings to the environment, in a bid to increase stream flows and ultimately reinstate a sustainable level of extraction in the MDB.

"Robbing Peter to pay Paul"

Study co-author and environmental scientist Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Sydney, said the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was an ambitious initiative to solve the escalating problems the basin’s rivers faced, but the implementation of some government programs seemed to have the opposite effect of what they had intended.

“The ‘buyback’ of irrigation water has put water back into the rivers, but our research found the subsidised infrastructure program could be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ by enabling more water extractions than water recovered through the efficiency program,” Prof Kingsford said.

Compounding the problem, the study used publicly available water data that suggested reductions in extractions from the MDB — supposedly commensurate with increases in environmental flows — may have been overestimated, particularly in the Northern MDB.

Concerningly, the study also found that half of all irrigators surveyed agreed that the taxpayer-funded program for the irrigation infrastructure was "wasteful and inefficient". There was further evidence the program favoured corporate agriculture, in terms of subsidy amount per entity, more than family farms.

Co-author and ANU resource economist Professor Quentin Grafton said: “Increased water extraction occurred because of changes to crop types and increased irrigated areas, partly enabled through increased surface-water entitlement utilisation and water trade participation. But we are most concerned with the ‘leaky bucket’ at the basin scale which means less water in streams and rivers.”

Co-author and Environmental Defenders Office Special Counsel Emma Carmody said: “There are a range of regulatory and governance issues which could result in the increased taking of water from some rivers and aquifers in the MDB, beyond specified limits. These include illegal extractions, increased floodplain harvesting, groundwater substitution and problems with ‘sustainable diversion limit’ compliance tools in some catchments.”

Long-term sustainability in doubt

Prof Kingsford said the researchers’ findings also cast uncertainty on the long-term sustainability of the basin’s rivers and the communities which rely on these flows for their livelihood.

“We found water consumption is not being controlled as required by the Basin plan, which means the health of rivers and groundwater systems in the MDB will continue to degrade, without even accounting for the current and future threat of climate change,” he said.

“We call upon the government to consider our findings as an opportunity to continue developing and implementing transparent, fully audited and robust accounting and accurate measurement of all forms of water extractions across the MDB for the sake of the environment and the communities which depend on the Basin.”

The researchers recommend further MDB water and rural policy actions to address these water governance challenges, including improved compliance, fines and regulation, and prioritising the cost-effectiveness of water recovered for the environment.

Read the full research paper in Resources, Conservation and Recycling:

6,000 years of climate history: an ancient lake in the Murray-Darling has yielded its secrets

Tom Hubble
Hannah PowerUniversity of NewcastleAnna HelfensdorferUniversity of Sydney, and Tom HubbleUniversity of Sydney

For millions of years, the Murray River has flowed from the Australian Alps across the inland plains, winding through South Australia before emptying into the ocean. But the final leg of its journey once looked vastly different.

Our research released today conclusively shows what has long been suspected: 6,000 years ago, water levels in the Lower Murray River were so high that much of the system in South Australia comprised a huge lake.

We also uncovered an invaluable long-term record of floods and droughts in the Murray Darling Basin, by drilling deep into layers of silt and clay built up over 12,000 years.

Our findings point to how Australia’s most important river system might be altered by future sea level rise. What’s more, a better record of past floods and drought will help manage water use in Australia’s most important river system.

The Lower Murray River today and a computer-generated image of what Lake Mannum may have looked like between 5,000 and 8,500 years ago when sea levels were 2 metres higher than they are today. Original photo: Tom Hubble. Modified image: Kathirine Sentas.

Probing The Past

Our climate is changing and sea levels are rising. Scientists are working hard to forecast what environments such as rivers and estuaries will look like under higher sea levels and, in Australia, more intense droughts and floods.

One way to do this is to look back to a period 5,000-8,000 years ago, to a point in the sea level cycle known as the Holocene highstand. The Holocene refers to the past 11,700 years or so of Earth’s history. The highstand is the point at which sea levels were highest.

Today, the Murray River crosses into South Australia and flows within a narrow valley, then gradually widens towards Lake Alexandrina where it empties into the sea.

But it wasn’t always this way. After the peak of the last glacial period 18,000 years ago, melting ice caused sea levels to rise from about 120 metres below today’s level. About 6,000 years ago, sea level peaked at two metres above today’s level.

Researchers have previously hypothesised that over several thousand years, the high sea level at the mouth of the Murray acted like a dam, causing water to back up in the river, creating a saltwater lake known as Lake Mannum.

Our research confirms that the lake existed, and that it was enormous - stretching from the mouth of the Murray to about 200 kilometres upstream near Swan Reach.

We used high resolution two- and three-dimensional modelling modelling of water levels and flows to confirm the presence of the lake, and how it formed.

Layers Of History

The naturally still waters of Lake Mannum acted as a enormous trap for clay and silt discharged upstream. Under various conditions, such as floods, the sediment travelled downstream and settled to the lake’s floor.

Today, the climate history for the Murray-Darling Basin is written in these sediment layers.

Sediment core collected near Monteith in the Lower Murray River Valley showing lots of fine layers of mud. Scanned core images created by Anna Helfensdorfer.

We collected a 30 metre-long sediment core from the present day floodplain of the Lower Murray River.

The core contains an 11-metre section of sediment deposited on the floor of Lake Mannum between 8,500 and 5,000 years ago. Each metre took roughly 315 years to accumulate - about three millimetres a year.

We believe each layer in the core probably represents an episode of increased or decreased river flow.

Most layers were probably produced when snow melt from the Australian Alps in spring and summer transported mud along the river system. Some layers will represent large floods that came down the Murray River, while others will represent floods that flowed down the Darling.

Longer-term variations in the thickness of the layers may correspond to extended periods of wetter and drier weather.

The next phase of our research will involve a close analysis of the sediment layers to obtain a reliable, detailed, high resolution record of flood and drought in the Murray Darling Basin.

What Can We Learn?

As sea level dropped to modern levels over the last 5,000 years, the lake slowly drained and turned back into a river.

These days, the lower Murray River is intensively managed. Five barrages, or barriers, have been erected near the river mouth to keep the water fresh by preventing seawater from creeping in, and to maintain water levels. Significant volumes of water have been extracted for irrigation and domestic use.

Some people argue the barrages should be removed to restore the natural tidal estuary and allow sea water to influence lake levels. Their removal is unlikely in the near future. But our research gives insight into what could happen if the barrages were removed, and sea levels rise under climate change.

The Lower Murray River near Mannum confined within the Lower Murray Gorge. Photo: Tom Hubble

We expect the next step in our research, analysing the sediment cores, to provide valuable data on long-term river flows and indicate whether intense droughts, such as the Millenium drought, are more or less frequent than the once-in-a-century figure often suggested.

In future, water managers deciding on water allocations may benefit from knowing how much water has historically come down the system, and how often.The Conversation

Hannah Power, Senior Lecturer in Coastal Science, University of NewcastleAnna Helfensdorfer, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney, and Tom Hubble, Associate professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Severe Coral Loss Leaves Reefs With Larger Fish But Low Energy Turnover

May 6, 2020: British Ecological Society

Research on the Great Barrier Reef has found severe coral loss to be associated with substantial increases in the size of large, long-living herbivorous fish. However, decreased recycling of this fish biomass could leave the ecosystem vulnerable to crashing. The research is published in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology.

By comparing reef surveys from 2003-2004 and 2018, an international team of researchers led by James Cook University, found severe coral loss, of up to 83% in some areas, was associated with increases in fish biomass, productivity and consumed biomass, meaning the reef now has more energy stored in the form of fish weight, is able produce more fish weight and these fish are being consumed by predators.

Renato Morais, lead author of the study, said "It's as if the herbivorous fish community has been scaled up, with larger fish growing and providing more food for predators when they die. However, this does not come without a cost."

Superficially, the increased biomass may seem positive from a human perspective, with the presence of bigger fish after a coral reef collapse suggesting a stable population. However, the researchers warn that reduced turnover, or recycling of biomass, in the reef could mean that this trend benefiting large fish might not last long.

"The fish have not multiplied. Instead, there are more bigger fish and less smaller ones." Said Mr Morais "This suggests that many of these long-living herbivorous fishes, such as surgeon fish which can live up to 40 years, could have been there before the corals died, only growing bigger. Eventually, these older fish will die and, if not replaced by young ones, productivity could collapse."

The increased growth of large fish like surgeonfish, parrotfish and rabbitfish is likely to have been made possible by the accessibility and quality of algal turf, the preferred food of these herbivores. These algal 'lawns' grow abundantly over the skeletons of dead coral. A recovery of the coral could result in a reduction in this food source and collapse of these herbivores.

School of gold-spotted rabbitfish. Credit Victor Huertas.

Erosion of dead coral structures and subsequent loss of refuges for fish could also cause a population crash. Although the researchers did observe a decline in coral structure in the reef area studied, it is possible that it had not reached a level where fish biomass would start to decline.

Between 2014 and 2017 the reefs around lizard island, where the research took place, were subjected to two back-to-back mass bleaching events and two severe cyclones that decimated the coral populations. Combined, these events led to an 80% decline in coral cover throughout the islands.

Previous research has mainly taken a static look at the impacts of coral loss on fish. In this study the researchers looked at the cumulative effects of coral mortality over time using metrics often absent from coral reef studies: fish growth, mortality and energy turnover.

To record the data, the researchers carried out fish and benthic (sea floor) surveys at Lizard Island, on Australia's Great Barrier Reef in 2003 to 2004, and 14 years later in 2018. The benthic surveys quantified live coral cover and algal turf cover. Fish surveys recorded 12 common types of reef fish families.

Because the study comprises of two snapshot assessments 15 years apart the researchers were limited to looking at long term trends. "If there were changes to the energetic balance of the fish assemblages at that reef that happened between surveys but did not have a lasting effect, they would have gone unnoticed." Explained Mr Morais.

Mr Morais also cautions that the findings apply to the one reef the researchers surveyed and other reefs could behave differently, although a number of features suggest similar changes may have taken place elsewhere. For instance, increases in herbivore populations are common in post-coral reefs. Collecting the same data on other reefs will help to establish if this is the case.

The researchers are looking to follow this reef to see if new energetic shifts occur. "Any further shifts will depend on what happens to the reef," said Mr Morais, "Will there be a recovery of corals? Or will this degraded state be maintained? Then, will these large and old herbivorous fishes be replaced by younger ones? There are many aspects in this story to be investigated."

Renato A. Morais, Martial Depczynski, Christopher Fulton, Michael Marnane, Pauline Narvaez, Victor Huertas, Simon J. Brandl, David R. Bellwood. Severe coral loss shifts energetic dynamics on a coral reef. Functional Ecology, 2020; DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.13568

Tree Trunks Take A Licking As Koalas Source Water

May 3, 2020: University of Sydney

Koalas are one of the world's most charismatic animals. But there is a lot we still don't know about them. For example, how do the marsupials access water in the treetops? Do they only absorb moisture from the gum leaves they eat? Or do they come down from the trees to drink from a waterhole? Until now, no one really knew.

A study published today in Ethology, led by a researcher from The University of Sydney, has captured koala drinking behaviour in the wild for the first time. The paper describes how koalas drink by licking water running down smooth tree trunks during rain.

The news arrives in time to celebrate Wild Koala Day on Sunday 3 May.

"For a long time, we thought koalas didn't need to drink much at all because they gained the majority of the water they need to survive in the gum leaves they feed on," said Dr Valentina Mella, in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. "But now we have observed them licking water from tree trunks. This significantly alters our understanding of how koalas gain water in the wild. It is very exciting."


Australia is currently suffering the longest dry period ever documented, with severe rainfall deficits and record maximum temperatures. Koalas experience severe heat-stress and mass mortality events in prolonged hot and dry conditions and they spend more time drinking from artificial water stations if rain is scarce.

Further research could investigate when and why koalas from different areas need access to free water -- not contained in the leaves as moisture but available freely as liquid, such as rain, river water or puddles -- and whether water supplementation is necessary for some populations.

"This type of drinking behaviour -- licking tree trunks -- relies on koalas being able to experience regular rainfall to access free water and indicates that they may suffer serious detrimental effects if lack of rain compromises their ability to access free water," Dr Mella said.

"We know koalas use trees for all their main needs, including feeding, sheltering and resting. This study shows that koalas rely on trees also to access free water and highlights the importance of retaining trees for the conservation of the species."

Koalas rarely drink water

Each day, wild koalas eat around 510 grams of fresh succulent eucalyptus leaves, and the water in the foliage they feed on is believed to contribute about three quarters of their water intake in both summer and winter.

Among their adaptations to the Australian climate, koalas also possess extraordinary urinary concentrating abilities and have restricted respiratory and cutaneous water loss compared to similar-sized mammals.

In captivity, koalas have been observed to drink water, but this behaviour has often been considered unusual and attributed to disease or to severe heat stress.

However, anecdotal reports suggest that koalas in the wild drink from waterholes in summer when temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius.

Koalas have also been observed approaching humans to access free water (in bottles, gardens and swimming pools during drought and after fire. But this is considered an unusual occurrence.

Observing licking behaviour

For this study, Dr Mella collated observations of koalas drinking in the wild made by citizen scientists and independent ecologists between 2006 and 2019 at the You Yangs Regional Park in Victoria and the Liverpool Plains in NSW. Each observation was koala behaviour noticed by chance and reported to Dr Mella.

There were 44 observations of free ranging koalas licking water running down a tree trunk during or immediately after rain in the You Yangs Regional Park.

Adult male koala licking water from a White Box tree in a rainstorm in the Liverpool Plains, NSW. Photo: George Madani and Lachlan Hall.

The other two observations of koala drinking behaviour were recorded between the towns of Gunnedah and Mullaley, in the Liverpool Plains. One was an adult female, with a joey, who drank profusely and uninterruptedly for 15 minutes. The other was an adult male who drank at a steady pace for 34 minutes.

"As koalas are nocturnal animals and observation of their behaviour rarely occurs during heavy rainfall, it is likely that their drinking behaviour has gone largely unnoticed and has therefore been underestimated in the past," Dr Mella said. "Our observations probably only represent a minority of the drinking that normally takes place in trees during rainfall."

Koalas were observed accessing water in trees by licking the wet surfaces of branches and tree trunks during rain across a range of weather conditions, even when free-standing water was available in dams.

"This suggests koalas were drinking not as a result of heat stress and that this behaviour is likely to represent how koalas naturally access water," said Dr Mella.

Valentina S. A. Mella, Caitlin Orr, Lachlan Hall, Sabrina Velasco, George Madani. An insight into natural koala drinking behaviour. Ethology, 2020; DOI: 10.1111/eth.13032

Scientists Find Highest Ever Level Of Microplastics On Seafloor

April 30, 2020: University of Manchester

An international research project has revealed the highest levels of microplastic ever recorded on the seafloor, with up to 1.9 million pieces in a thin layer covering just 1 square metre.

Over 10 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. Floating plastic waste at sea has caught the public's interest thanks to the 'Blue Planet Effect' seeing moves to discourage the use of plastic drinking straws and carrier bags. Yet such accumulations account for less than 1% of the plastic that enters the world's oceans.

The missing 99% is instead thought to occur in the deep ocean, but until now it has been unclear where it actually ended up. Published this week in the journal Science, the research conducted by The University of Manchester (UK), National Oceanography Centre (UK), University of Bremen (Germany), IFREMER (France) and Durham University (UK) showed how deep-sea currents act as conveyor belts, transporting tiny plastic fragments and fibres across the seafloor.

These currents can concentrate microplastics within huge sediment accumulations, which they termed 'microplastic hotspots'. These hotspots appear to be the deep-sea equivalents of the so-called 'garbage patches' formed by currents on the ocean surface.

The lead author of the study, Dr Ian Kane of The University of Manchester said: "Almost everybody has heard of the infamous ocean 'garbage patches' of floating plastic, but we were shocked at the high concentrations of microplastics we found in the deep-seafloor.

"We discovered that microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents which concentrate them in certain areas."

Microplastics on the seafloor are mainly comprised of fibres from textiles and clothing. These are not effectively filtered out in domestic waste water treatment plants, and easily enter rivers and oceans.

In the ocean they either settle out slowly, or can be transported rapidly by episodic turbidity currents -- powerful underwater avalanches -- that travel down submarine canyons to the deep seafloor (see the group's earlier research in Environmental Science & Technology). Once in the deep sea, microplastics are readily picked up and carried by continuously flowing seafloor currents ('bottom currents') that can preferentially concentrate fibres and fragments within large drifts of sediment.

These deep ocean currents also carry oxygenated water and nutrients, meaning that seafloor microplastic hotspots can also house important ecosystems that can consume or absorb the microplastics. This study provides the first direct link between the behaviour of these currents and the concentrations of seafloor microplastics and the findings will help to predict the locations of other deep-sea microplastic hotspots and direct research into the impact of microplastics on marine life.

The team collected sediment samples from the seafloor of the Tyrrhenian Sea (part of the Mediterranean Sea) and combined these with calibrated models of deep ocean currents and detailed mapping of the seafloor. In the laboratory, the microplastics were separated from sediment, counted under the microscope, and further analysed using infra-red spectroscopy to determine the plastic types. Using this information the team were able to show how ocean currents controlled the distribution of microplastics on the seafloor.

Dr Mike Clare of the National Oceanography Centre, who was a co-lead on the research, stated: "Our study has shown how detailed studies of seafloor currents can help us to connect microplastic transport pathways in the deep-sea and find the 'missing' microplastics. The results highlight the need for policy interventions to limit the future flow of plastics into natural environments and minimise impacts on ocean ecosystems."

Dr Florian Pohl, Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University, said: "It's unfortunate, but plastic has become a new type of sediment particle, which is distributed across the seafloor together with sand, mud and nutrients. Thus, sediment-transport processes such as seafloor currents will concentrate plastic particles in certain locations on the seafloor, as demonstrated by our research."

Ian A. Kane, Michael A. Clare, Elda Miramontes, Roy Wogelius, James J. Rothwell, Pierre Garreau, Florian Pohl. Seafloor Microplastic Hotspots Controlled by Deep-Sea Circulation. Science, 2020 DOI: 10.1126/science.aba5899

Birding At Home In Pittwater

A reminder that BirdLife Australia is continuing its fight to stop extinctions and protect nature, even if many of us are doing this from our own homes. They need you now more than ever.

Thank you to everyone for staying at home as much as possible to stop the spread of the virus and save lives. We know self-isolation can be challenging and stressful at times so what we need right now is nature.

We can be so grateful that no matter where you live, you can still see birds and take comfort from them. 

Please visit their new Birding at Home page to find out how you and your household can continue to enjoy the beauty of our feathered friends.

You'll find activities to occupy kids while our movements are restricted, links to our Autumn Birds in Backyards survey and Bird Finder, and information on how you can act to protect birds forever.

To help everyone who is now Birding at Home, they are also kicking off a regular live series on Facebook where our bird experts will be taking questions and talking about what we love best - birds.

Even if you are an expert birder, we encourage you to join in for a chat – and please spread the word to all the bird and nature lovers in your life. 

BirdLife Australia Facebook

P.S. They'll be having new bird experts every week to talk about a new topic, including Amanda Lilleyman in the NT on shorebirds and Holly Parsons to talk about bird friendly gardens. Make sure you have liked them on Facebook to get notifications and join in the talks.

Bird of the Month photography by Michael Mannington of Community Photography and Pittwater Online News Features Photographer.

YM Efficiency Cleanup Completed

Remember June 1st, 2018 when the container ship YM Efficiency lost containers overboard into Australian Commonwealth Waters, on the Newcastle-Port Stephens coast?

Well, on Friday May 8th, 2020 the Australian Marine Safety Authority (AMSA) announced all of the identified shipping containers lost overboard from the YM Efficiency in June 2018, have now been recovered off the Hunter Coast. The salvage operation started in March 2020.

Offshore construction vessel, MV Pride, which carried out the five-week operation, has returned to Port of Newcastle to discharge the final six containers onshore.

It brings an end to subsea operations to recover thousands of tonnes of waste and pollution that has mired Newcastle-Port Stephens coastal communities for almost two years.

The final six containers will be processed by waste crews for salvage, recycling or landfill.

Final six recovered containers have been delivered to shore for processing.

Two containers originally holding 39 steel beams will be processed as scrap metal onshore.

We are thankful to the seafarers who have worked on this operation, and cleaned up our waters.

The total cost of the recovery operation to remove and dispose of 63 containers is about $17 million, which, unless recovered, will be funded from levies collected from the shipping industry.

Since this pollution event occurred in June 2018 AMSA has attempted to engage with the Taiwanese owners of the YM Efficiency, Yang Ming, about their ongoing responsibility to remove the remaining containers from the seafloor.

AMSA’s Chief Executive Officer Mick Kinley said  on Friday that this operation has finally exposed Yang Ming and their insurer’s arguments against removing this pollution as nonsense.

“Yang Ming and their insurers Britannia P&I have tried every trick in the book to attempt to shirk their responsibilities to clean up their mess.

“They said that attempting to remove these containers was dangerous. That was wrong.

“They said trying to remove them would cause more damage to the environment. That was wrong.

“They said that these containers and their contents aren't pollution. There have been tonnes of garbage that show that was wrong too.

“Yang Ming are out of excuses and they should pay up.”

AMSA has commenced legal proceedings in the Federal Court to recover all costs associated with the recovery operation from Yang Ming and their insurers.

Fox At Bilgola Taking Chickens

Bilgola Plateau residents report the loss of chickens to a fox in recent weeks and would like to advise others in the area to ensure their chooks are well locked up at night in fox-proof cages.

The fox is of a substantial size and also been spotted by residents around Bilgola Bends at dusk when commuters are coming home, although there may be more than one preying on these local egg-layers and tick eaters.

If a fox gets into a small run or chicken house and there are a number of birds in there, they can get into a killing 'frenzy' and will kill all of the birds, usually taking only one bird with them. 

A few tips to protect your chickens
Many chicken coops come with relatively sturdy wire mesh however to ensure that foxes cannot break in; it’s wise to install something a bit tougher.

A sturdy steel mesh, like the one pictured below, is suitable for predator proofing. It is too thick for a fox to bite and too small for him to squeeze through. You can find mesh like this at your nearest JBH Hardware store. Simply attach it to outside of the coop using metal cable ties or industrial staples.

Image courtesy of Coconinoco - Flickr

Prevent foxes from digging under
Even if a fox cannot get through the wire, they may be able to access chickens by digging underneath. There are two ways of preventing this:

Attach a permanent mesh bottom to the coop
Putting mesh on the base of the enclosure is an easy and effective way to stop foxes from burrowing underneath. This mesh can have slightly larger holes of around 15cm x 15cm so it gives your chickens a bit of space to reach the grass/dirt underneath. A fox may fit through this gap if the mesh was upright but due to the angle of the burrowing they will not be able to enter when it is used on the base.

Attach a mesh skirt to the bottom of the coop
A skirt of strong wire mesh that goes around the chicken coop (but not under it) can help to prevent foxes from burrowing because it prevents them from digging nearby. If you are going to install a mesh skirt, you must remember that it will make it more difficult to move the coop around the garden.

Fill those gaps
Foxes can manoeuvre themselves through the smallest of spaces so you must ensure there aren’t any gaps around doors, mesh walls or ventilation holes (if there are any).

Prevent foxes from undoing locks
Foxes are clever and will easily knock open simple twist catches so it’s important to check that your coop has slide-latching bolts on any openings.

If you are particularly forgetful or have children that are helping to take care of the chickens, it’s safer to install two locks on the primary doors. This way if one is left open or isn’t secured properly, there is a backup.

Red fox - photo by and courtesy Jonn Leffmann

Tips sourced from My Pet Warehouse and My Chicken Coop.

National Seniors Says Self-Funded Retirees ‘Dumped’ During COVID-19

May 6, 2020
National Seniors Australia wants the Federal Government to “get creative” in finding ways to help support all retirees and stop ignoring those who are self-funded and partly self-funded.

Assistance such as one-off stimulus payments for pensioners and increased payments for mature age jobseekers are available but Chief Advocate Ian Henschke says some self-funded retirees are also doing it tough because of the COVID-19 financial hit.

“The government has 'dumped' older Australians who are self-funded and have a difficult road ahead because of the new and weird world of COVID-19,” Mr. Henschke told Professional Planner.

“There’s talk of bank shares paying minimal dividends, if any, then there’s record low interest rates and the steep fall on returns in super funds.”

There are three ways the government can give support now by actioning key National Seniors recommendations.

Fix the “broken” Age Pension taper rate
The taper rate is used to determine Age Pension accessibility and has been a particular bone of contention for retirees since it was changed in 2017 from $1.50 to $3.00 for every $1,000 of assets over the relevant threshold.

The change meant more people got the full pension, but part pensions were reduced dramatically.

The taper rate actually reduced total income for retirees with balances between $400,000 and around $800,000.

“The taper rate has distorted the retirement income system,” Mr Henschke says. 

“It’s created a perverse incentive in the retirement income system whereby the ones that have saved more are actually getting less.”

National Seniors calls on the government reduce the taper rate to $2 per $1,000 of assets from the current $3.

Deeper cuts required
While the recent cuts to the deeming rate, which is used to calculate pensions, are very welcome they don’t go far enough.

We want the deeming rate cut back to the cash rate as that would more accurately reflect the true income available to retirees at this time.

The government reduced the deeming rate – used to calculate the estimated earnings on investments – twice already this month by a total of 75 basis points to a rate of 2.25 per cent.

Mr Henschke says the current rate of 2.25 per cent is still too high with the official cash rate at 0.25 per cent.

Pension Loans Scheme
This scheme gives people of pension age the ability to borrow against their home. National Seniors wants the interest on the loan halved, at least.

The rate for the scheme was reduced recently from 5.25 per cent to 4.5 per cent, which Mr Henschke says is not effective enough to make it palatable for older Australians.

“The government should look at halving the rate and making it less unfair,” he says, noting that the government can hardly ask the banks to follow cuts in the official cash rate for home loans when they’re only taking half-measures themselves.

“4.5 per cent is still too high,” he says.

This means self-funded retirees can halve their pension drawdown and supplement their income with loan payments instead of selling assets required to fund a full pension drawdown when market returns are poor.

“Then when they come out the other side they can go back onto their 5 per cent drawdown,” Mr Henschke said.

National Seniors states the time is right for government to start to pursue broader reform of the retirement system. They are starting a conversation with older Australians about this in Connect and you can read their first article asking whether its time for a universal pension here.

More Berries, Apples And Tea May Have Protective Benefits Against Alzheimer's

May 5, 2020
Older adults who consumed small amounts of flavonoid-rich foods, such as berries, apples and tea, were two to four times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and related dementias over 20 years compared with people whose intake was higher, according to a new study led by scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University.

The epidemiological study of 2,800 people aged 50 and older examined the long-term relationship between eating foods containing flavonoids and risk of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and Alzheimer's disease and related dementias (ADRD). While many studies have looked at associations between nutrition and dementias over short periods of time, the study published today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at exposure over 20 years.

Flavonoids are natural substances found in plants, including fruits and vegetables such as pears, apples, berries, onions, and plant-based beverages like tea and wine. Flavonoids are associated with various health benefits, including reduced inflammation. Dark chocolate is another source of flavonoids.

The research team determined that low intake of three flavonoid types was linked to higher risk of dementia when compared to the highest intake. Specifically:
  • Low intake of flavonols (apples, pears and tea) was associated with twice the risk of developing ADRD.
  • Low intake of anthocyanins (blueberries, strawberries, and red wine) was associated with a four-fold risk of developing ADRD.
  • Low intake of flavonoid polymers (apples, pears, and tea) was associated with twice the risk of developing ADRD.
The results were similar for AD.
"Our study gives us a picture of how diet over time might be related to a person's cognitive decline, as we were able to look at flavonoid intake over many years prior to participants' dementia diagnoses," said Paul Jacques, senior author and nutritional epidemiologist at the USDA HNRCA. "With no effective drugs currently available for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, preventing disease through a healthy diet is an important consideration."

The researchers analysed six types of flavonoids and compared long-term intake levels with the number of AD and ADRD diagnoses later in life. They found that low intake (15th percentile or lower) of three flavonoid types was linked to higher risk of dementia when compared to the highest intake (greater than 60th percentile). Examples of the levels studied included:

Low intake (15th percentile or lower) was equal to no berries (anthocyanins) per month, roughly one-and-a-half apples per month (flavonols), and no tea (flavonoid polymers).

High intake (60th percentile or higher) was equal to roughly 7.5 cups of blueberries or strawberries (anthocyanins) per month, 8 apples and pears per month (flavonols), and 19 cups of tea per month (flavonoid polymers).

"Tea, specifically green tea, and berries are good sources of flavonoids," said first author Esra Shishtar,  "When we look at the study results, we see that the people who may benefit the most from consuming more flavonoids are people at the lowest levels of intake, and it doesn't take much to improve levels. A cup of tea a day or some berries two or three times a week would be adequate," she said.

Jacques also said 50, the approximate age at which data was first analysed for participants, is not too late to make positive dietary changes. "The risk of dementia really starts to increase over age 70, and the take home message is, when you are approaching 50 or just beyond, you should start thinking about a healthier diet if you haven't already," he said.

To measure long-term flavonoid intake, the research team used dietary questionnaires, filled out at medical exams approximately every four years by participants in the Framingham Heart Study, a largely Caucasian group of people who have been studied over several generations for risk factors of heart disease.

To increase the likelihood that dietary information was accurate, the researchers excluded questionnaires from the years leading up to the dementia diagnosis, based on the assumption that, as cognitive status declined, dietary behaviour may have changed, and food questionnaires were more likely to be inaccurate.

The participants were from the Offspring Cohort (children of the original participants), and the data came from exams 5 through 9. At the start of the study, the participants were free of AD and ADRD, with a valid food frequency questionnaire at baseline. Flavonoid intakes were updated at each exam to represent cumulative average intake across the five exam cycles.

Researchers categorised flavonoids into six types and created four intake levels based on percentiles: less than or equal to the 15th percentile, 15th-30th percentile, 30th-60th percentile, and greater than 60th percentile. They then compared flavonoid intake types and levels with new diagnoses of AD and ADRD.

There are some limitations to the study, including the use of self-reported food data from food frequency questionnaires, which are subject to errors in recall. The findings are generalisable to middle-aged or older adults of European descent. Factors such as education level, smoking status, physical activity, body mass index and overall quality of the participants' diets may have influenced the results, but researchers accounted for those factors in the statistical analysis. Due to its observational design, the study does not reflect a causal relationship between flavonoid intake and the development of AD and ADRD.

Paul F Jacques, Rhoda Au, Jeffrey B Blumberg, Gail T Rogers, Esra Shishtar. Long-term dietary flavonoid intake and risk of Alzheimer disease and related dementias in the Framingham Offspring Cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2020; DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqaa079

The Commission’s Regulatory Actions In Response To Newmarch House Outbreak

May 6, 2020
Statement from Ms Janet Anderson PSM, Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner

“As the national regulator of Commonwealth funded aged care services, the Commission’s role is to protect and enhance the safety, health, well-being and quality of life of older Australians receiving aged care. 

The Commission is acutely aware that aged care consumers are among those who are most vulnerable to the virus and the risks it presents to people’s health and life. In the context of the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) (released on 18 February 2020), the Commission moved quickly to focus our regulatory approach to respond to the pandemic. We are using the full range of our regulatory powers to ensure that providers meet their obligations with respect to the Aged Care Quality Standards (Quality Standards), and to implement all necessary steps to mitigate the risks of transmission of the virus consistent with the advice of health authorities.

The COVID-19 outbreak at Newmarch House in Western Sydney during this pandemic has been one of the most devastating in Australia, with 16 residents having lost their lives to the virus. This is a tragic situation, and the anxiety and grief experienced by residents, their family members and staff has had an impact on all Australians. 

Since the beginning of the outbreak at Newmarch House on 12 April 2020, the Commission has been actively engaged with Anglican Community Services (the approved provider) and Newmarch House management to monitor and support the provider to meet their obligations under Quality Standards, including implementing effective infection control practices at the service. Exercising our statutory function for complaints handling, we have also been responding to concerns raised by consumers and their families and helping to resolve the issues they have raised.

From 23 April 2020, we have taken a series of graduated regulatory actions to ensure compliance in response to escalating concerns and evidence that the provider was failing to meet Quality Standards. These regulatory actions comprise issuing an administrative direction, followed by a non-compliance notice, and most recently, a notice requiring agreement. The Commission has escalated our enforcement as a consequence of continued evidence of lack of effective infection control, and of immediate and severe risk to the safety, health and well-being of residents at Newmarch House. Detail of this regulatory action can be found on our website.

The Commission is continuing to fully exercise its regulatory authority to mitigate risk to those in Newmarch House.  This authority is supporting the important work of local health authorities and experts, including infectious disease specialists, Public Health Unit clinicians, and other representatives from NSW Health. We continue to work closely with the Commonwealth Department of Health to identify and address issues and ensure that every effort is made to protect each resident’s safety and wellbeing. 

If there are concerns about the care of residents or the actions of specific services in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints can be made via the Commission’s website or by calling 1800 951 822.”

UQ Purple Provides Wild Yeast For A True Queensland Brew

May 5, 2020
Researchers are raising a glass to a Queensland first: beer brewed using wild fermented yeast, hand-picked from a jacaranda tree at The University of Queensland.

Dr Ben Schulz and PhD candidate Edward Kerr from UQ’s Faculty of Science have licensed their wild yeast variety to Newstead Brewing Co with the help of UniQuest, the university’s commercialisation company.

The favoured yeast was selected for its white peach, lychee and fresh-baked sourdough flavours and was one of more than 150 varieties painstakingly gathered from trees, leaves and flowers at UQ’s St Lucia campus.

“Yeast is everywhere, and the diversity is mind-blowing,” Mr Kerr said.

Mr Kerr spent months collecting the wild yeasts before culturing it in the lab and selecting only the best-performing colonies to be tested for the ability to convert sugar into ethanol, an essential step in the brewing process.

“This particular variety of wild yeast was sourced from a big jacaranda tree near to the Brisbane River and The Women’s College at UQ,” he said.

Mr Kerr said he started collecting the wild yeasts in May 2017, which he first isolated as a yeast peptide dextrose formula and then colonised on plates in the lab.

“We then tested which strains fermented the best and the result left us with about 20 candidates that could proceed to sensory testing and potentially be used to make beer,” he said.

Newstead Brewing Co’s CEO Dr Mark Howes said the domestic ale was still being perfected but the plan was to make it available for drinking as soon as possible.

“We see it as the first in a series of Brisbane wild yeast dominated beers and hopefully, we’ll be launching more like this in coming years,” he said.

“This particular isolate was selected from the intriguing and delicate esters that it produces.

"I’ve never experienced anything like it, with flavours like white peach, lychee and fresh-baked sourdough.

"It’s really quite amazing.”

Mr Kerr said beers made from wild-fermented yeasts took longer to brew than those made with brewer’s yeast, but the result was much more interesting.

“It really suits a nice beer with minimal hops added and a low malt profile that allows the flavour of the wild yeast to come through,” he said.

“Upscaling is our biggest issue, as it does take longer to make beer with wild yeast – up to three months compared to eight days with brewer’s yeast.”

UniQuest CEO Dr Dean Moss said he was excited by the licence agreement and looked forward to UQ researchers and Newstead Brewing Co joining forces again to create more beers in the “Wild Yeasts and Where to Find Them” line.

“This is a fantastic example of industry and UQ working together to achieve something with tremendous commercial appeal, and pushes the boundaries of what’s possible,” Dr Moss said.

Already looking at further colourful botanicals, Mr Kerr said he was currently investigating developing a wild yeast strain derived from poincianas, another iconic Brisbane tree.

World-Class Western Sydney Hospital Building Finished Early

May 4, 2020
Western Sydney will soon have more world-class health services right on their doorstep, with construction now complete on the Westmead Health Precinct’s new Central Acute Services Building.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the new state-of-the-art hospital building, which includes two new emergency departments and more than 300 patient rooms, is the centrepiece of the $1 billion-plus Westmead Redevelopment. 

“Major construction has finished three months ahead of schedule, meaning this cutting-edge building will bring additional health services to Western Sydney at a critical time.” Ms Berejiklian said.

“This redevelopment will help ensure our health system continues to provide high-quality healthcare, research and education facilities for decades to come, as well as ensuring the system can deal with potential surges in COVID-19 cases.”

The NSW Government is actively planning ahead for a range of options to expand physical and resource capacity of health facilities and areas for self-isolation due to COVID-19.  

Due to construction finishing early, the Central Acute Services Building has the capacity to provide hundreds of beds to care for COVID-19 patients, should the need arise.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard said that once up and running, the new facility will not only transform healthcare in Western Sydney, but will provide a centre for ground-breaking health research to benefit every Australian.

“Our health experts will be working alongside top medical and scientific researchers in this new 14-storey hub, which embeds staff from The University of Sydney, and includes research, education and training facilities,” Mr Hazzard said. 

Once fully operational, key features of the new building will include:
  • two new emergency departments — one for adults and one for children
  • digital operating theatres
  • expanded imaging, pharmacy and logistics
  • more than 300 patient rooms (a high proportion of single rooms with dedicated carer zones)
  • more spaces with natural light
  • landscaped entry plaza and forecourt
  • education, training and research facilities on every floor
  • 1.5 floors for the University of Sydney to enable greater integration of education, research and health services delivery.
The Central Acute Services Building is a collaboration between Westmead Hospital, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, the University of Sydney and Health Infrastructure.

In the coming months, work will be carried out to complete equipment installation and other preparations for the opening and staged move of services and staff.

The NSW Government has also committed an additional $619 million for The Children’s Hospital at Westmead Stage 2.

COVID-19: Potentially Lifesaving Immunoglobulin Treatment For Seriously Ill Australians

May 6, 2020
The Australian Government welcomes the announcement by CSL Behring that Australia will be one of the first countries in the world to start production of a potentially lifesaving plasma-derived treatment for people with COVID-19.

The product, COVID-19 Immunoglobulin, could be used to treat people seriously ill with complications caused by the virus, particularly those whose illness is progressing towards the need for ventilation.

Victoria is host to one of the first facilities in the world to start production of COVID-19 Immunoglobulin, supporting clinical trials of the treatment in Australia which will support Australians with COVID-19.

It will be developed and manufactured at the CSL Behring Australia advanced manufacturing facility in Broadmeadows, Victoria.

The product will be developed using plasma donations made in Australia by people who have recovered from COVID-19, in partnership with Australian Red Cross Lifeblood (Lifeblood).

People who have recovered from COVID-19 will be invited by Lifeblood to donate their plasma, which is high in antibodies – the proteins that fight COVID-19. These antibodies will be purified and concentrated to make COVID-19 Immunoglobulin.

An estimated 800 plasma donations are required to make sufficient COVID-19 Immunoglobulin to treat 50 to 100 people seriously ill with COVID-19 complications within the clinical trial. It is a great example of Australians helping Australians at a time of critical need.

Australia’s world-class scientists, medical researchers and biotechnology companies continue to play an important role during the COVID-19 crisis.

People in the community who have recovered from COVID-19 infection and are able to donate plasma have the opportunity to contribute to the development of these treatments, each of which could provide a valuable addition to treating people who may have become infected with the virus.

The Government’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in partnership with our highly skilled and dedicated scientists and health professionals, is saving lives and protecting lives.

New Medicine Listings On The PBS For Cardiovascular Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis And Asthma

May 1, 2020
There is new hope for thousands of Australians with cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma with new and amended medicines listings on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) from today.

To help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, the Australian Government is expanding subsidised access to a breakthrough medicine that combats high cholesterol, with up to 30,000 Australians per year expected to benefit.

From 1 May, the PBS listing of Repatha® (evolocumab) will be extended to include patients with certain types of high risk cardiovascular disease caused by high cholesterol. 
  • Patients with non-familial hypercholesterolemia (abnormally high cholesterol) who have atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and meet certain conditions will now have access to Repatha.
  • The listing of Repatha will also be extended to include more patients with familial hypercholesterolaemia (genetic high cholesterol).
Hypercholesterolaemia results in abnormally high levels of cholesterol in the blood can lead to blockages in the arteries, hardening of the arterial walls, and a higher risk of heart attack and stroke without proper treatment.

Repatha is a breakthrough new medicine that can dramatically lower cholesterol levels which can reduces a person’s risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Patients might otherwise pay over $5,400 per year for Repatha. With the PBS subsidy, they will only need to pay $41 per prescription, or $6.60 with a concession card.

Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of death in Australia, with 43,477 deaths attributed to it in Australia in 2017. It is estimated cardiovascular disease kills one Australian every 12 minutes.

Also from today, Australians with rheumatoid arthritis will benefit from the listing of Rinvoq® (upadacitinib) on the PBS.

Patients might otherwise pay more than $16,000 per year for Rinvoq but with the PBS subsidy will only pay $41 or $6.60 with a concession card.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease affecting about 458,000 Australians. It attacks the body’s healthy tissues, targeting the lining of the joints, causing inflammation and joint damage.

It can cause significant physical disability, pain, fatigue and mental health issues.

Currently, there is no cure, but rheumatoid arthritis medicines can reduce pain and stiffness and prevent long-term joint damage.

Rinvoq® will be a new treatment option for people with severe rheumatoid arthritis providing them with more choice in how they manage this painful condition.

Around 5,000 patients per year already access a comparable treatment, and may benefit from this new treatment option.

Also from 1 May, Australians with uncontrolled severe asthma will now have access to Fasenra Pen®.

Fasenra® (benralizumab) is currently listed on the PBS as a syringe for injection for the treatment of uncontrolled severe eosinophilic asthma.

This new pre‑filled pen will allow patients who choose to self‑administer Fasenra to be treated at home, rather than attend a clinic to access the medicine through a syringe injection administered by a health professional.

Over 1,000 patients per year access Fasenra through the PBS and may benefit from the listing of Fasenra Pen®. Without the PBS subsidy, patients might otherwise pay up to $23,000 per year.

These new and amended listings were recommended by the independent Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee.

Since 2013, the Australian Government has approved more than 2,350 new or amended listings on the PBS.

This represents an average of around 30 listings or amendments per month or around one each day – at an overall investment by the Government around $11 billion.

The Government’s commitment to making sure Australians can access the medicines they need, at affordable prices, remains rock solid.

Fossil Reveals Evidence Of 200-Million-Year-Old 'Squid' Attack

May 6, 2020
Scientists have discovered the world's oldest known example of a squid-like creature attacking its prey, in a fossil dating back almost 200 million years.

The fossil was found on the Jurassic coast of southern England in the 19th century and is currently housed within the collections of the British Geological Survey in Nottingham.

In a new analysis, researchers say it appears to show a creature -- which they have identified as Clarkeiteuthis montefiorei -- with a herring-like fish (Dorsetichthys bechei) in its jaws.

They say the position of the arms, alongside the body of the fish, suggests this is not a fortuitous quirk of fossilisation but that it is recording an actual palaeobiological event.

They also believe it dates from the Sinemurian period (between 190 and 199 million years ago), which would predate any previously recorded similar sample by more than 10 million years.

The research was led by the University of Plymouth, in conjunction with the University of Kansas and Dorset-based company, The Forge Fossils.

It has been accepted for publication in Proceedings of the Geologists' Association and will also be presented as part of Sharing Geoscience Online, a virtual alternative to the traditional General Assembly held annually by the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Professor Malcolm Hart, Emeritus Professor in Plymouth and the study's lead author, said: "Since the 19th century, the Blue Lias and Charmouth Mudstone formations of the Dorset coast have provided large numbers of important body fossils that inform our knowledge of coleoid palaeontology. In many of these mudstones, specimens of palaeobiological significance have been found, especially those with the arms and hooks with which the living animals caught their prey.

"This, however, is a most unusual if not extraordinary fossil as predation events are only very occasionally found in the geological record. It points to a particularly violent attack which ultimately appears to have caused the death, and subsequent preservation, of both animals."

In their analysis, the researchers say the fossilised remains indicate a brutal incident in which the head bones of the fish were apparently crushed by its attacker.

They also suggest two potential hypotheses for how the two animals ultimately came to be preserved together for eternity.

Firstly, they suggest that the fish was too large for its attacker or became stuck in its jaws so that the pair -- already dead -- settled to the seafloor where they were preserved.

Alternatively, the Clarkeiteuthis took its prey to the seafloor in a display of 'distraction sinking' to avoid the possibility of being attacked by another predator. However, in doing so it entered waters low in oxygen and suffocated.

The body of the squid as shown in the fossilised remains

The body of the fish with the Clarkeiteuthis' arms wrapped around it

Curious Kids: Why Is The Earth Round?

Answered by Jonathan P. Marshall, Vice Chancellor's Post-doctoral Research Fellow, UNSW in September 2017

Why is the Earth round? – Zoe, age 3, Sydney.

Thank you, Zoe, for your great question. Asking questions like this is a really important part of being a scientist.

Imagine the Earth pulling everything it is made up of, all of its mass, towards its centre. This happens evenly all over the Earth, causing it to take on a round shape. Let me explain what I mean by that.

To understand why the Earth is round we need to look at two things - mass and gravity.

Every single thing in the universe has mass - from the biggest star to a tiny grain of sand. People, too, have mass. The more big and dense something is, the more mass it has. So an elephant would have more mass than a mouse, for example.

More mass means more gravity
While you might not be able to see it, all objects with mass are actually being pulled towards each other by a force called gravity. The bigger the mass of something, the stronger its pull.

Have you ever wondered why if you drop something, it falls towards the Earth and not up into the sky? Or the reason why we’re all stuck to the ground?
That’s because of gravity. Because the mass of the Earth is so much bigger than the mass of people (or spoons, or vases, or water), we’re all strongly pulled towards it, which is why it feels like we’re stuck to the earth’s surface.

Not everything in space is round
Part of what makes a planet a planet is its round shape. But most things in space are not perfectly round at all! In fact, some things are very lumpy. The reason for this is the way planets are made.

Planets are made of rock, ice, and gas. Before becoming a planet, the rocky and icy parts are small lumps, no bigger than sand grains, moving around the young Sun.

An accretion disk, made from gas rock and ice, similar to the one that formed our Solar system billions of years ago. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Over millions of years, gravity pulled the small rocky and icy parts towards each other until they started to stick together. Eventually these small parts grew from the size of sand into the size of mountains.

These mountains of rock and ice are fluffy, like giant dirty snowballs. So the small mass - and weak gravity - of the whole mountain is unable to overcome the hard shape of the rock and ice lumps to become round.

Fluffy mountains like these got swept together billions of years ago to make the planets we recognise today. But some of them are still minor objects in the Solar system. These bits of leftover planet-building material, called asteroids and comets, have very lumpy shapes. Some are shaped like potatoes and others like eggs.

The largest of these minor bodies, such as Ceres and Pluto, have enough gravity to look round like a planet. They are called dwarf planets. Some, like Haumea, spin very fast, giving them a stretched shape.
The mass of the Earth is big enough that the gravitational force it creates can pull the hard shape of ice, rock and metal into a sphere. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Curious Kids: Why is our dog so cute?

Golden Pixels LLC/Shutterstock
Deborah WellsQueen's University Belfast

Why is our dog Martha so cute? – Sam, aged nine, UK

Dogs are one of the most popular pets in the world – and many owners regard them as an important member of the family unit. Just looking at our dogs can put a smile on our faces. But why is this?

Well, in a nutshell, dogs look cute. With their large, round heads, big eyes that face forwards, soft fur and floppy ears, dogs simply look very appealing to us. They also behave in an endearing manner, with their clumsy movements, nuzzling noses and wagging tails.

Lots of people would agree that Martha is very cute, but she’s especially cute to Sam. Provided by Sam's mumCC BY-NC-ND

In many respects, a lot of these characteristics (with the exception of the wagging tails) are very similar to those of a baby – something else that triggers us to feel a bit mushy inside. In fact, some research has even shown that if we look at a picture of a baby and a picture of a puppy, our brains respond in the same way, flooding our body with feelgood chemicals.

Happy Chemicals

These chemicals, in turn, help to put us into a good mood and make us feel protective, loving and – importantly – happy. This could explain why so many people search for dog images on social media – it gives them their daily dose of cuteness therapy.

Not only is it normal to find our “fur babies” engaging, it’s also very important that we perceive them that way. If we find something cute, we are much more likely to look after it. Cute things are usually regarded as vulnerable and needy – again, just like babies.

This is important from a survival perspective. And it seems that the younger a dog is, the more likely it is that we will find it attractive.

Curious Kids is a series by The Conversation that gives children the chance to have their questions about the world answered by experts. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to We won’t be able to answer every question, but we’ll do our very best.

One particularly neat study demonstrated this by showing a group of people pictures of dogs at different ages and asking them how cute they considered them. Interestingly, the puppies were found to be at their most appealing between eight and ten weeks of age – just when their mums would typically be weaning them and encouraging greater independence. This finding hints at puppies being at their cutest when they are at their most vulnerable.

Our Own Dogs Are The Cutest

While dogs in general are considered to be cute, it seems that we are pre-programmed to find our own dogs especially appealing because, very quickly, they become an important part of the family. We give them names, celebrate their birthdays and share their photos like proud parents.

Dogs of The Conversation. From top left: Hobbes, Holly, Eddie (and Holly), Toasty; Winston, Otto, Betty; Hyko. CC BY-NC-ND

The strong bond of attachment that develops between owners and their dogs is not surprising when you consider what goes on chemically when you interact with your pet pooch. A number of studies have shown that looking at, and in particular stroking, our dogs, triggers our brain to release something called oxytocin (sometimes known as the “love” hormone) into the bloodstream.

This so-called “cuddle chemical” helps us feel calmer and allows us to develop a strong bond of affection with our pet. This explains why we find our own dogs so much cuter than those that don’t belong to us.

Although dogs have looked cute for a very long time, they are deliberately being bred by humans to look more and more enchanting. Today’s popular breeds, such as the cockapoo, cavachon and Pomeranian, with their teddy bear appearance, are a far cry from their ancestor, the wolf.

It’s hard to say just how dogs will look in the future, but one thing is for sure: they will all have the cute factor.

When sending in questions to Curious Kids, make sure you include the asker’s first name, age and town or city. You can:The Conversation

Deborah Wells, Reader, School of Psychology, Queen's University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NSW WWII Veterans Share Memories Of VE Day

May 8, 2020

Incredible firsthand video accounts from veterans who served in the Second World War have recalled the moment victory in Europe was declared 75 years ago.

 Acting Minister for Veterans Geoff Lee said the remarkable stories take us back in time to commemorate VE Day, an important event in Australia’s war time history.

“We are privileged to have these recordings of our veterans’ eyewitness accounts of VE Day so their stories can be told again and again to future generations,” said Mr Lee.

“Our soldiers escaped dangerous situations, risking their lives to support the Allied Forces’ fight against German occupation in Europe.”

95 year old Max Barry was a Royal Australian Air Force rear gunner and tells his story of great escapes and survival, after parachuting from a Lancaster bomber in 1944.

“We caught on fire and one engine after another packed up. The pilot said we had to bail out… so we did,” said Mr Barry.

Mr Barry spent 11 months as a prisoner of war before VE Day led to his freedom but he always had a deep sense he would make it back home.

“I was always confident I was going to survive. I’m still doing it!”

100 year old Bill Geoghegan who served with the Royal Australian Air Force and Bomber Command said he is lucky to have survived.

“One night there were two crews and they tossed up to see who would go on the operation. The other crew went and they never came back. It wasn’t my time,” said Mr Geoghegan.

Mr Lee encourages everyone to read the veterans’ incredible accounts on the new NSW Stories section of the War Memorial Register website, which has been launched especially for the 75th anniversary of VE Day. 

Nearly one million Australians served in the Second World War with 39,000 Australians losing their lives and another 30,000 taken prisoner.

For more information, and to read transcripts, visit: - you can also watch the interviews in the video below.

Young Writers' Competition 2020

Splash through puddles, hear a suspicious splash or have your face splashed across the news... How will you make a splash? 

The Northern Beaches Young Writers' Competition 2020 is now open!

Write an original story using this year's theme word 'splash' for a chance to be published as an author in a library eBook. 

The competition is open to students up to and including year 12 who live or go to school on the Northern Beaches and are members of the Northern Beaches library service. 

How to enter:

Complete the online entry form and attach your story as a Word document. If your story is hand-written, then a clear, readable photo or scanned PDF can be submitted. All entries must be submitted by 8pm, Wednesday 10 June. 

Not a member of the library? Don't worry, we will use this form to create a membership for you. Just mark 'no' under the library member field in the online form. If you are a member and unsure of your library card number, just mark 'yes' in the library member field in the online form and we will find your library membership number. 

About the competition:

Entries will be judged according to characterisation, originality, plot and use of language and will be arranged into six different age group categories.

Winners from each category will have their stories published in an eBook that will be added to our collection. 

For more information, please email our Library Programs team or call 9976 1739. 

Want some inspiration? Check out the 2019 Young Writers' Competition winning entries in the eBook Wild.

Going Fishing This Weekend?

This item, sent in Paul McGrath (who has penned Sunday's History page on Grace Brook of Avalon - a very special mum and Artist) may be of interest - from 1875:

Capture Of A Large Sunfish.

THE Sydney Museum has recently received an interesting addition to its zoological collection in the form of a large sunfish. This fine specimen was harpooned off Barranjuee Head by Mr. Albert Black, who states that on the iron being fastened the fish gave them a fine run, so that the capture was the cause of considerable excitement.

After much difficulty the monster was hauled on board a steamer, and sent to Sydney, when Dr. Cox had it immediately conveyed to the Museum, where the officers of that institution faithfully photographed it, and have succceeded in preparing, preserving, and mounting it most successfully, so that both in measurement and appearance it retains a faithful representation of the living fish.

Only three distinct species of the sunfish are supposed to exist, viz., Orthagoriscus mola, Ortha-goriscus lanceolatus, and Orthagoriscus trun-cate. The present specimen corresponds more nearly with the characters given of O. mola than with any of the others. In O. mola the body is elevated, its depth being always considerably more than one-half the total length. In young examples of this species the vertical diameter exceeds that of the longitudinal, and the skin is rough and minutely granulated. In 0. lanceo latus the body is long with a cordal fin as long as deep, rounded behind, and spotted with grey. In 0. truncatus the skin is smooth and divided into small hexagonal scutella.

The following are the principal measurements of the specimen now in the Museum :-From the edge of the tail to the snout 5 feet 3 inches, from the base of the dorsal fin to the base of the ventral fin 3 feet 4 inches, from the tip of the dorsal fin to the tip of the ventral fin 7 feet 3 inches. The greatest diameter through from shoulder to shoulder, so characteristically marked in this specimen, is 13 inches.
The most remarkable features about this specimen are its short rounded tail, its prominent large fin on the back near the tail, and another fin of a similar character on its under surface ; it possesses also two smaller fins on either side of the flattened body, more forward than the others. These fins are admirably adapted to act as propellers. The mouth, which is very small, has a large tooth both in the upper and lower jaw, well adapted to cutting sea-weed qr breaking up shells, which it was found to feed on. It is covered with a rough skin, much resembling that of some of our sharks, and is provided with an ingenious valve over the exit from the lungs. 

We are informed by the curator, Mr. Ramsay, that several additional bones have been found in the dissection of this specimen, which appear to have not been before recorded. This very interesting object is now mounted in a manner creditable to the officers of the institution, and notably to Mr. Thorp, for the rapid and successful way he has preserved it. We are given to understand that another fine sunfish has been preserved by Mr. Macleay, of Elizabeth Bay. It was captured by Mr. John Brazier in the vicinity of Port Stephens. Its measurement is 12ft. from the dorsal fin to the ventral fin, 9ft. from the snout to the tail, and 5ft. across the centre, The fish was full of parasites-the longest worm found in it measuring 5ft, and containing 4000 joints.
Capture of a Large Sunfish. (1875, February 27). Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1907), p. 21. Retrieved from


Photo: Albert Black of the Broken Bay Customs Station on Station Beach, Barrenjoey, photo courtesy grandson, John Black, of Pittwater
Photo: An enormous ocean sunfish (Mola mola), caught by W.N. McMillan of E. Africa, at Santa Catalina Isl., Cal. April 1st, 1910. Its weight was estimated at 1600 kg (3,500 pounds).
A sunfish (or mola) is any fish in the Mola genus (family Molidae). The fish develop their truncated, bullet-like shape because the back fin, with which they are born, never grows. Instead, it folds into itself as the creature matures, creating a rounded rudder called a clavus. Mola in Latin means "millstone" and describes the ocean sunfish's somewhat circular shape. They are a silvery colour and have a rough skin texture.

The mola is the heaviest of all the bony fish, with large specimens reaching 14 ft (4.3 m) vertically and 10 ft (3.0 m) horizontally and weighing nearly 5,000 lb (2,300 kg). Sharks and rays can be heavier, but they are cartilaginous fish.

Mola are found in temperate and tropical oceans around the world. They are frequently seen basking in the sun near the surface and are often mistaken for sharks when their huge dorsal fins emerge above the water. This basking near the surface is where they get their name from - they are 'sunning' themselves. Their teeth are fused into a beak-like structure, and they are unable to fully close their relatively small mouths.

Ocean sunfish can become so infested with skin parasites, they will often invite small fish or even birds to feast on them. Sunfish will even breach the surface up to 10 ft (3.0 m) in the air, in an attempt to shake the parasites.

They are clumsy swimmers, waggling their large dorsal and anal fins to move, and steering with their clavus. Their food of choice is jellyfish, though they will eat small fish and huge amounts of zooplankton and algae, as well. They are harmless to people, and are considered docile, but can be very curious and will often approach divers.

Their population is considered stable, though they frequently are snagged in drift gill nets and can suffocate on sea trash, like plastic bags (which resemble jellyfish).

An ocean sunfish in Nordsøen Oceanarium, Hirtshals, Denmark - photo by Per-Ola Norman

Sounds Of Silent Space Come To Life In New Soundtrack

May 7, 2020
The eerie and usually unheard sounds of space captured in the deep cold of Antarctica could be the next hot hit, thanks to a new research, musical and artistic collaboration.

The unique project takes recordings of Earth's natural radio sounds, normally not audible to the human ear, and stunning imagery captured at the Halley Research Station in Antarctica to create a 90-minute soundtrack set to piano. The resulting album, Aurora Musicalis, is released today. 

The trio behind the space soundtrack are musician and composer Dr Kim Cunio from The Australian National University's School of Music, Dr Nigel Meredith a space weather researcher based at the British Antarctic Survey, and Cambridge-based, artist-engineer, Diana Scarborough.

For the soundtrack Dr Meredith worked with four years of data from the Halley Very Low Frequency (VLF) receiver and carefully selected a day featuring a rich variety of radio emissions made by the planet, including spherics, whistlers and chorus.

This data is normally used to investigate space weather storms, the impact of space weather on our climate and to detect lighting, but conversion to sound reveals a series of weird and wonderful noises, known as the 'sounds of space'.

"Near-Earth space is full of rich variety of plasma waves that we can't normally hear," Dr Meredith said. 

"But we can take these electromagnetic waves and turn them into audible sounds. The result is these eerie noises that make you feel you are on the set of a classic science fiction film, but which at the same time are strangely familiar.

"Take 'spherics' for example. They are the radio pulses caused by lightning flashes, sometimes up to 10,000 kilometres away. When converted into audio files, they sound like the gentle crackling of a fire or the pop of a distant transmission from outer space.

"Then there's the 'chorus', which are emissions from deep within the magnetosphere, the magnetic bubble surrounding the Earth. When you convert these into audio, they sound like a host of bird whistles in a forest."   

Dr Cunio spent a day composing and playing piano, "a meditation" inspired by the space weather audio.

"Aurora Musicalis is a statement that science and art can work together," Dr Cunio said.

"Not solely to entertain as such collaborations were imagined generations ago, but to unite us in telling the story of our planet as it struggles under multiple stresses, each of which could change our civilisation within a generation.

"We must trust our scientists, who by nature are not activists, but truth tellers who usually shy away from political or social conflict over the results of their findings. Music and the arts have a role to play in galvanising us into facilitating the urgent and immediate care that our planet needs."

Diana Scarborough combines the resulting soundtrack with original visual sequences - using photos and images captured at Halley.

"The Halley Research Station is located in the remote Brunt Ice Shelf. It's not only ideal for capturing these incredible sounds, but also stunning visuals, including spectacular auroras that light the horizons with bright and captivating colour," Ms Scarborough said.

"These images provide an enthralling video for the soundtrack. They are also the perfect way for the human eye to soak in what the ear hears on this album.

"I was really inspired by the rich archive of images collected at Halley and knew they would be the perfect way of helping people 'see' the amazing sounds selected by Nigel and the beautiful, mesmerising music composed by Kim."

Aurora Musicalis forms part of the 'Sounds of Space' project and is available for free on BandCamp.

The very low frequency receiver at Halley Research Station, Antarctica. Photo: British Antarctic Survey

X-Ray Analysis Sheds Light On Construction And Conservation Of Artefacts From Henry VIII's Warship

May 1, 2020
21st century X-ray technology has allowed University of Warwick scientists to peer back through time at the production of the armour worn by the crew of Henry VIII's favoured warship, the Mary Rose.

Three artefacts believed to be remains of chainmail recovered from the recovered hull have been analysed by an international team of scientists led by the Universities of Warwick and Ghent using a state-of-the-art X-ray facility called XMaS (X-ray Materials Science) beamline.

They analysed three brass links as part of continuing scientific investigations into the artefacts recovered during the excavation of the wreck in the Solent. These links have often been found joined to make a sheet or a chain and are most likely to be from a suit of chainmail armour. By using several X-ray techniques available via the XMaS beamline to examine the surface chemistry of the links, the team were able to peer back through time to the armour's production and reveal that these links were manufactured from an alloy of 73% copper and 27% zinc.

The cleaned and conserved link. Credit: Mark Dowsett with permission from the Mary Rose Trust

Emeritus Professor Mark Dowsett from the University of Warwick's Department of Physics said: "The results indicate that in Tudor times, brass production was fairly well controlled and techniques such as wire drawing were well developed. Brass was imported from Ardennes and also manufactured at Isleworth. I was surprised at the consistent zinc content between the wire links and the flat ones. It's quite a modern alloy composition."

The exceptionally high sensitivity analysis revealed traces of heavy metals, such as lead and gold, on the surface of the links, hinting at further history to the armour yet to be uncovered.

Professor Dowsett explains: "The heavy metal traces are interesting because they don't seem to be part of the alloy but embedded in the surface. One possibility is that they were simply picked up during the production process from tools used to work lead and gold as well. Lead, mercury and cadmium, however, arrived in the Solent during WW2 from the heavy bombing of Portsmouth Dockyard. Lead and arsenic also came into the Solent from rivers like the Itchen over extended historical periods.

"In a Tudor battle, there might be quite a lot of lead dust produced by the firing of munitions. Lead balls were used in scatter guns and pistols, although stone was used in canon at that time."

The Tudor warship the Mary Rose was one of the first warships that Henry VIII ordered not long after he ascended to the throne in 1509. Often considered to be his favourite, on 19 July 1545 it sank in the Solent during a battle with a French invasion fleet. The ship sank to the seabed and over time the silts covered and preserved its remains as a remarkable record of Tudor naval engineering and ship board life.

In 1982 the remaining part of the hull was raised and is now housed in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth alongside many thousands of the 19,000 artefacts that were also recovered, many of which were remarkably well preserved by the Eocene clays.

After recovery, the three artefacts were subjected to different cleaning and conservation treatments to prevent corrosion (distilled water, benzotriazole (BTA) solution, and cleaning followed by coating with BTA and silicone oil). This research also analysed the surface chemistry of the brass links to assess and compare the levels of corrosion between the different techniques, finding that all had been effective at preventing corrosion since being recovered.

Professor Dowsett added: "The analysis shows that basic measures to remove chlorine followed by storage at reduced temperature and humidity form an effective strategy even over 30 years."

XMaS is owned by the Universities of Liverpool and Warwick and is located in Grenoble, France, at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). It works with over 90 active research groups, representing several hundred researchers, in diverse fields ranging across materials science, physics, chemistry, engineering and biomaterials and contributes to societal challenges including energy storage and recovery, tackling climate change, the digital economy and advances in healthcare.

It is a National Research Facility and is currently undergoing a major upgrade thanks to £7.2million funding from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Professor Mieke Adriaens, Head of the Electrochemistry and Surface Analysis Group at Ghent University said: "XMaS is extremely versatile and flexible in the analytical strategies which can be devised and implemented. What's more, the beamline scientists are amongst the best we've encountered anywhere. It is fascinating to examine ancient technology using specially developed analytical methods which can then be applied to modern materials too. It was also a real privilege to be allowed access to these unique artefacts and to play a part in unravelling their story."

Professor Eleanor Schofield, Head of Conservation at the Mary Rose: "This study clearly shows the power of combining sophisticated techniques such as those available at a synchrotron source. We can glean information not only on the original production, but also on how it has reacted to being the marine environment and crucially, how effective the conservation strategies have been.

Co-author Professor Pam Thomas, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Warwick, said: "We are very pleased that researchers at Warwick are continuing to put our expertise in Analytical Sciences at the forefront of research on important historical artefacts. The long tradition of X-ray scattering and diffraction science within the Department of Physics at Warwick continues to give high-quality data and leads to penetrating insight across a wide range of scientific problems. It is testament both to the expertise at the XMaS beamline of ESRF and in the X-Ray Diffraction Research Technology Platform (RTP) at Warwick."

Mark G. Dowsett, Pieter-Jan Sabbe, Jorge Alves Anjos, Eleanor J. Schofield, David Walker, Pam Thomas, Steven York, Simon Brown, Didier Wermeille, Mieke Adriaens. Synchrotron X-ray diffraction investigation of the surface condition of artefacts from King Henry VIII's warship the Mary Rose. Journal of Synchrotron Radiation, 2020; 27 (3) DOI: 10.1107/S1600577520001812
Image of the Mary Rose (credit: ©Johnny Black)

Curious Kids: why do we have a QWERTY keyboard instead of putting the letters in alphabetical order?

Many other key arrangements have been tried. Some are claimed to be easier to learn or faster to use than QWERTY. But none has proved good enough to beat QWERTY. Flickr/Jeff EatonCC BY-SA
Geoff CummingLa Trobe University

Curious Kids is a series for children. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.

Why are the letters on the keyboard not in alphabetical order?? – Baker, age 9, Arrowtown, New Zealand.

Great question! That question really puzzled me when I was a kid. And so as a grown-up, I decided to research it and write a paper about it.

Let’s turn the clock back. About 150 years ago, all letters and business papers were written by hand. Most likely they were written using a pen that had to be dipped in ink every word or two. Writing was slow and messy.

Then some clever inventors built a machine for typing. The first typewriters were big heavy metal machines that worked a bit like a piano.

Have you ever seen the inside of a real piano? You press a key and some clever levers make a felt hammer hit just the right piano string to make a note.

Inside a piano.

Read more: Curious Kids: How long would garden snails live if they were not eaten by another animal?

Early typewriters were similar. They had all these levers with a metal alphabet letter at the end of it. You had to press a letter key quite hard to make the metal lever fly across and hit the paper. Hit the A key and the A lever would hit the paper and type A. The paper then shifted a bit to the left, so the next key would hit in just the right place next to the A. Press more keys and you could type a word, or even a whole book.

The first machine had the letter keys in alphabetical order. The trouble was that if you hit two keys quickly the levers would jam. Jams were most likely when the two keys were close together on the keyboard. Rearranging the letters could reduce jams.

Rearranging the letters reduced the risk that two levers would jam.

Christopher Sholes was an American inventor who was most successful in reducing jams. He tried various arrangements, always trying to reduce the need to type two keys that were close together. The best arrangement he could find was similar to the QWERTY keyboard we all use today. (Look at the top row of a keyboard to see why it’s called QWERTY.)

He sold his invention to the Remington Company in the United States. In the 1870s, that company built and sold the first commercially successful typewriters. They used the QWERTY keyboard.

For 100 years or so after the Remington typewriter arrived, vast numbers of people all over the world trained to become touch typists (meaning they could type even without looking much at the keyboard). They were employed to type letters and all other kinds of things for business and government. Because so many people became so skilled at using QWERTY, it became very difficult to get everyone to change to any other key arrangement.

Many other key arrangements have been tried. Some are claimed to be easier to learn or faster to use than QWERTY. But none has proved good enough to beat QWERTY. It seems that we are stuck with this layout, even if jams are no longer a problem.

QWERTY was developed for the English language. Some other languages use variations. For example, AZERTY is commonly used for French, QWERTZ for German, and QZERTY for Italian. Perhaps you can find someone from India, Thailand, Japan, Korea, or China. Ask them to show you the keyboard they use in their language.

Here’s an AZERTY keyboard, commonly used in France. NemossosCC BY

You’ll Never Regret Being Able To Touch Type

Now, on any keyboard, feel the F and J keys carefully and find some tiny bumps. Place your first fingers on those keys, and your other fingers along the same row. Your left fingers should be on ASDF and your right on JKL;. These are called the “home keys”.

Keep your fingers resting lightly on the home keys. Type other letters by moving just one finger up or down and perhaps a little sideways. Learn how to do that quickly, without watching your fingers, and you can touch type!

When I was a teenager, I owned a typewriter. I made a cardboard shield to stop me seeing my fingers as I typed. I used clothes pegs to fix it to the typewriter. Then I found a touch-typing book and started to practise, making sure that I kept my fingers on the home keys and always used the correct finger to type each letter. After lots of practice, I could touch type. I love being able to touch type. It has helped me all my life, first as a student, then in everything I have done since.

Now with computers it’s easier than ever to learn to touch type, even if QWERTY at first seems strange. There’s lots of good software to help (your school may have some), some of it feeling like a game.

Find software that you like, and put in some practice. It may seem hard at first, but persist and you will soon get good at it. Find a friend or two and do it together. Perhaps make it a competition. You’ll never regret being able to touch type.

Read more: Curious Kids: why do eggs have a yolk?

Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to


Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.The Conversation

Geoff Cumming, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Botany and the colonisation of Australia in 1770

Botanist Joseph Banks recommended Botany Bay as the site for a penal colony. Charles Gore (1788) / State Library of NSW
Bruce BuchanGriffith University

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.

James Cook and his companions aboard the Endeavour landed at a harbour on Australia’s southeast coast in April of 1770. Cook named the place Botany Bay for “the great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place”.

Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were aboard the Endeavour as gentleman botanists, collecting specimens and applying names in Latin to plants Europeans had not previously seen. The place name hints at the importance of plants to Britain’s Empire, and to botany’s pivotal place in Europe’s Enlightenment and Australia’s early colonisation.

A new series from The Conversation.

‘Nothing Like People’

Joseph Banks became one of Britain’s most influential scientists. National Library of Australia

Cook has always loomed large in Australia’s colonial history. White Australians have long commemorated and celebrated him as the symbolic link to the “civilisation” of Enlightenment and Empire. The two botanists have been less well remembered, yet Banks in particular was an influential figure in Australia’s early colonisation.

When Banks and his friend Solander went ashore on April 29, 1770 to collect plants for naming and classification, the Englishman recollected they saw “nothing like people”. Banks knew that the land on which he and Solander sought plants was inhabited (and in fact, as we now know, had been so for at least 65,000 years). Yet the two botanists were engaged in an activity that implied the land was blank and unknown.

They were both botanical adventurers. Solander was among the first and most favoured of the students of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and colonial traveller who devised the method still used today for naming species. Both Solander and Banks were advocates for the Linnaean method of taxonomy: a systematic classification of newly named plants and animals.

When they stepped ashore at “Botany Bay” in 1770, the pair saw themselves as pioneers in a double sense: as Linnaean botanists in a new land, its places and plants unnamed by any other; as if they were in a veritable terra nullius.

The plant specimens Joseph Banks collected were taken back to England, where they remain today in the Natural History Museum. Natural History Museum

Botany In ‘Nobody’s Land’

Terra nullius, meaning “nobody’s land”, refers to a legal doctrine derived from European traditions stretching back to the ancient Romans. The idea was that land could be declared “empty” and “unowned” if there were no signs of occupation such as cultivation of the soil, towns, cities, or sacred temples.

As a legal doctrine it was not applied in Australia until the late 1880s, and there is dispute about its effects in law until its final elimination by the High Court in Mabo v Queensland (No. II) in 1992.

Read more: Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and absent presence in First Nations art

Cook never used this formulation, nor did Banks or Solander. Yet each in their way acted as if it were true. That the land, its plants, and animals, and even its peoples, were theirs to name and classify according to their own standards of “scientific” knowledge.

In the late eighteenth century, no form of scientific knowledge was more useful to empire than botany. It was the science par excellence of colonisation and empire. Botany promised a way to transform the “waste” of nature into economic productivity on a global scale.

Plant Power

Wealth and power in Britain’s eighteenth century empire came from harnessing economically useful crops: tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee, rice, potatoes, flax. Hence Banks and Solander’s avid botanical activity was not merely a manifestation of Enlightenment “science”. It was an integral feature of Britain’s colonial and imperial ambitions.

Banksia ericifolia was one of the many species given a new name by Banks. Natural History Museum

Throughout the Endeavour’s voyage, Banks, Solander, and their assistants collected more than 30,000 plant specimens, naming more than 1,400 species.

By doing so, they were claiming new ground for European knowledge, just as Cook meticulously charted the coastlines of territories he claimed for His Majesty, King George III. Together they extended a new dispensation, inscribed in new names for places and for plants written over the ones that were already there.

Long after the Endeavour returned to Britain, Banks testified before two House of Commons committees in 1779 and 1785 that “Botany Bay” would be an “advantageous” site for a new penal colony. Among his reasons for this conclusion were not only its botanical qualities – fertile soils, abundant trees and grasses – but its virtual emptiness.

Read more: From Captain Cook to the First Fleet: how Botany Bay was chosen over Africa as a new British penal colony

Turning Emptiness To Empire

When Banks described in his own Endeavour journal the land Cook had named “New South Wales”, he recalled: “This immense tract of Land … is thinly inhabited even to admiration …”. It was the science of botany that connected emptiness and empire to the Enlightened pursuit of knowledge.

One of Banks’s correspondents was the Scottish botanist and professor of natural history, John Walker. Botany, Walker wrote, was one of the “few Sciences” that “can promise any discovery or improvement”. Botany was the scientific means to master the global emporium of commodities on which empire grew.

Botany was also the reason why it had not been necessary for Banks or Solander to affirm the land on which they trod was empty. For in a very real sense, their science presupposed it. The land, its plants and its people were theirs to name and thereby claim by “discovery”.

When Walker reflected on his own botanical expeditions in the Scottish Highlands, he described them as akin to voyages of discovery to lands as “inanimate & unfrequented as any in the Terra australis”.

As we reflect on the 250-year commemoration of Cook’s landing in Australia, we ought also to consider his companions Banks and Solander, and their science of turning supposed emptiness to empire.The Conversation

Bruce Buchan, Associate Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Armchair Antarctica 2:  Journey To Law Dome

Published by the Australian Antarctic division May 6, 2020

At the coldest time of year in 2019, expeditioners travel to one of the snowiest places in Antarctica to defrost a remote weather station.

Tales Of The City – Starring Buff-Banded Rails

May 5, 2020: By BIBY TV

These Buff-banded Rails (Gallirallus philippenis) are also found in Pittwater, with a pair and baby seen in Careel Creek in 2012 and another pair and baby seen towards the Careel Bay end of Careel Creek in late 2019. They can be very shy and as they are a low to the ground creek and shorebird, they need to be steered clear of so they don't become stressed. 

These (in this video) were filmed on numerous occasions between mid January and mid March 2020 at Tumbalong Park in the Darling Harbour precinct of Sydney’s CBD. Tumbalong Park is a five hectare site largely designed to provide both green space and recreation opportunities (e.g. children’s play areas). Much of the landscaping consists of Australian native plants, but we have noted some exotics in the mix (e.g. philodendrons), especially where the rails appear to be living and thriving. (Photo 2 shows the exact location in the foreground.) BIBY TV strongly promotes the use of native plants, but this video shows how some exotics can contribute to habitat. Hence, we all should observe how animals use our gardens before making changes and ensure replacement plants have similar benefits. Buff-banded Rails undoubtedly appreciate this dense tussocky vegetation as their typical behaviour is to skulk about and forage under cover near water. 

Buff-banded Rails are not uncommon birds, but their behaviour can make them elusive. Unlike some members of the Rallidae family, such as communal Eurasian Coots and raucous Australasian Swamphens, this rather quiet and often solitary species can easily slip under the radar even in the most likely habitats. For instance, just the odd individual is usually noted (on over a couple of months in bigger, more clearly suitable parklands within Sydney (e.g. Centennial Park, Sydney Olympic Park, Royal Botanic Gardens and Eastlakes Golf Course). So you can imagine how thrilled we were when the city worker in the BIBY TV team saw Buff-banded Rails for the first time at Tumbalong Park during a lunch break in early January. Until then, he was simply grateful for the “usual suspects”, that is birds who are generally comfortable in urban areas (e.g. Silver Gull, Australian White Ibis, Noisy Miner, Welcome Swallow, Australian Raven, Australian Magpie, Rainbow Lorikeet and the feral Rock Dove). Inspired by the rails’ beauty and endearing ways, he decided to film them with an iPhone 7 as the usual camera gear and tripod would be awkward in that situation. The only new equipment bought for this adventure was a selfie stick. A much better use for it surely....

The footage across two months isn’t presented in a linear fashion. Instead, you will meet the main star of this video in the opening scenes, which were captured in early March. This adorable bird was affectionately called Limpy after he/she (sexes alike) appeared with a newly injured leg in late January. Before then, this individual was seen (in juvenile plumage) darting about with a likely sibling and two adults (presumably parents). Of course, we were concerned about this injury and perplexed about how it happened. But we have seen several birds with unworkable or missing legs or feet who get about quite well on the good leg and possibly survive for many years. And with each passing day we saw Limpy manage the disability with greater ease while developing the stunning adult plumage. (There are various glimpses of the younger rails in January and their later appearance, as well as adult birds. One example of the duller juvenile form in mid January can be seen around 6.03 on the video.) 

Not only did our resilient rail and its family appear to relish the vegetation and shallow water (with little floating platforms), they took advantage of human activity. Although no one was seen directly feeding them, the rails and other birds would feast on dropped scraps (e.g. bread). Obviously this is not ideal for any of the bird species, but thankfully the rails also had a more natural diet of invertebrates and plant matter (e.g. fallen figs). Juveniles can fend for themselves, but sometimes the female parent brings them food. (An example of this can be found at 5.09, with fed youngster out of sight.) Keen birders might notice some intriguing bird calls that you wouldn’t expect in this urban setting (e.g. Fan-tailed Cuckoo). This bird soundscape (see 3.46 for one of the speakers in situ) was actually  created by the artist Janet Laurence and represents indigenous birds of the area pre-development ( Note that we have presented Buff-banded Rail calls from this filmed family during the introductory photos. And yes, that gorgeous rail in photo 1 is Limpy (in mid March)! Wings are opened for sunbathing.

New Shorebird Identification Booklet

The Migratory Shorebird Program has just released the third edition of its hugely popular Shorebird Identification Booklet. The team has thoroughly revised and updated this pocket-sized companion for all shorebird counters and interested birders, with lots of useful information on our most common shorebirds, key identification features, sighting distribution maps and short articles on some of BirdLife’s shorebird activities. 

The booklet can be downloaded here in PDF file format:

Paper copies can be ordered as well, see for details.

Download BirdLife Australia's children’s education kit to help them learn more about our wading birdlife

Shorebirds are a group of wading birds that can be found feeding on swamps, tidal mudflats, estuaries, beaches and open country. For many people, shorebirds are just those brown birds feeding a long way out on the mud but they are actually a remarkably diverse collection of birds including stilts, sandpipers, snipe, curlews, godwits, plovers and oystercatchers. Each species is superbly adapted to suit its preferred habitat.  The Red-necked Stint is as small as a sparrow, with relatively short legs and bill that it pecks food from the surface of the mud with, whereas the Eastern Curlew is over two feet long with a exceptionally long legs and a massively curved beak that it thrusts deep down into the mud to pull out crabs, worms and other creatures hidden below the surface.

Some shorebirds are fairly drab in plumage, especially when they are visiting Australia in their non-breeding season, but when they migrate to their Arctic nesting grounds, they develop a vibrant flush of bright colours to attract a mate. We have 37 types of shorebirds that annually migrate to Australia on some of the most lengthy and arduous journeys in the animal kingdom, but there are also 18 shorebirds that call Australia home all year round.

What all our shorebirds have in common—be they large or small, seasoned traveller or homebody, brightly coloured or in muted tones—is that each species needs adequate safe areas where they can successfully feed and breed.

The National Shorebird Monitoring Program is managed and supported by BirdLife Australia. 

This project is supported by Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority and Hunter Local Land Services through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program. Funding from Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and Port Phillip Bay Fund is acknowledged. 

The National Shorebird Monitoring Program is made possible with the help of over 1,600 volunteers working in coastal and inland habitats all over Australia. 

The National Shorebird Monitoring program (started as the Shorebirds 2020 project initiated to re-invigorate monitoring around Australia) is raising awareness of how incredible shorebirds are, and actively engaging the community to participate in gathering information needed to conserve shorebirds. 

In the short term, the destruction of tidal ecosystems will need to be stopped, and our program is designed to strengthen the case for protecting these important habitats. 

In the long term, there will be a need to mitigate against the likely effects of climate change on a species that travels across the entire range of latitudes where impacts are likely. 

The identification and protection of critical areas for shorebirds will need to continue in order to guard against the potential threats associated with habitats in close proximity to nearly half the human population. 

Here in Australia, the place where these birds grow up and spend most of their lives, continued monitoring is necessary to inform the best management practice to maintain shorebird populations. 

BirdLife Australia believe that we can help secure a brighter future for these remarkable birds by educating stakeholders, gathering information on how and why shorebird populations are changing, and working to grow the community of people who care about shorebirds.

To find out more visit:

Behind The Scenes At The Kirby Institute's COVID-19 Lab

May 6, 2020: By Sherry Landow, UNSW
At a high-security lab at UNSW Sydney, scientists are working around the clock to develop treatments and therapies to manage COVID-19. Here’s what their days look like.

Stuart Turville in the Kirby Institute’s Glendonbrook laboratories, before getting dressed in full PPE to enter the PC3 lab. Image: Richard Freeman / UNSW.

Associate Professor Stuart Turville is one of the many scientists who dropped everything in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

His office is the level three physical containment (PC3) lab at UNSW Medicine’s Kirby Institute. He was working in the lab researching HIV transmission and gene therapy vectors in February – what he says already feels like a lifetime ago.

“Two months ago, we needed to kick everyone out of the lab,” he says.

“As HIV is a blood-borne virus, the lab had been built with blood contaminants in mind – sharp objects and cuts were the main safety concerns.

“But we needed a different set of containment procedures to manage the respiratory-borne virus SARS-CoV-2.”

The lab was quickly retrofitted and is now fully equipped to study the live SARS-CoV-2 virus. It has opened its doors to collaborators from UNSW Medicine’s School of Medical Sciences, Prince of Wales Hospital and the Garvan Institute. 

Together, the scientists are working on creating treatments and therapies to use against COVID-19.

A/Prof Turville hopes they can work quickly enough to save lives. 

“I've got an 80-year-old father with heart problem at home. My mother is in her 70s,” he says. 

“If they ever get sick, I want to make sure that there’s a therapy that would keep them – and other families out there – safe.” 

Dressing for the occasion
PC3 labs are among the most secure labs in Australia: they are specifically designed to keep infectious contagions from escaping.

“Any work on the live virus needs to happen in PC3 labs,” says Dr Sacha Stelzer-Braid, a postdoctoral scientist at UNSW Medicine.

“Before entering the lab, we go through a stringent dressing process. It takes a long time to get in the appropriate protective gear.”

They start by wearing what most would wear to the gym, shorts and a t-shirt, with a set of scrubs on over the top. Once this is on, they can move into the clean anteroom – the first of three chambers leading to the lab. 

“Each chamber has a higher negative pressure that the one before it,” says A/Prof Turville. “This creates a vacuum that sucks air inwards, making it near impossible for any virus particles to escape.”

The first chamber is -25 kilopascals (kPa). As soon as the scientists enter, the fans ramp up and the pressure drops even more, only returning to -25 kPa once the door closes again. No two doors can be open at the same time.

Once in the anteroom, the staff put on layers of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“First we put on the gloves, then we remove our shoes and put protective booties over our socks, then we step into full-body suit with a hooded mask,” says A/Prof Turville. 

Kirby Institute researchers preparing to enter the PC3 containment lab, where our teams are working to grow the SARS-CoV-2 virus and determine how it responds to different treatments. Image: Richard Freeman / UNSW.

“It's very hot and claustrophobic,” he says. “It basically feels like putting on a bunch of garbage bags.” 

From there they enter the main central lab – a clean designated area to put their P3 respirators on. These respirators seal off the face and connect to the hood, allowing them to breathe safely. This room has a lower pressure of -50 kPa. 

Before stepping into the final module, the researchers then need to put on their gumboots and overalls.

“These water-resistant covers ensure that if anything spills on us, it will run to the floor and can be bleached,” says A/Prof Turville.

All direct work with the virus happens in the smallest chamber. At -75 kilopascals, this room has the highest negative pressure in the whole lab.

The first thing the researchers do in this lab is prepare for the worst.

“Before we start any work, we need to make up a whole bunch of decontaminating solution,” says A/Prof Turville. “Bleach, detergents, ethanol – we need to be prepared so that if anything happens, we're ready to clean the spill.”

Finally, they are ready to start work on the live virus, which sits in a biosafety cabinet. The cabinet offers another layer of protection between the scientist and the virus.

Kirby Institute researchers preparing to enter the PC3 containment lab, where our teams are working to grow the SARS-CoV-2 virus and determine how it responds to different treatments. Image: Richard Freeman / UNSW.

Working with and without the virus
Despite the lengthy process to get in the lab, A/Prof Turville’s team will generally only want to do work in there for an hour or two.

“Not only is the gear hot and uncomfortable, it’s also hard to communicate with each other,” says A/Prof Turville. “It’s like talking underwater.”

To make the most of the limited time in the lab, the researchers do as much preparation outside the lab as possible. Another part of the facility holds a lower-security lab.

“Before going in, we’ll manipulate the cells that aren’t infected, we’ll prepare the media – we’ll prepare absolutely everything,” says Dr Stelzer-Braid.

There’s also a lot of non-lab work needed to make the research possible

“When I’m not in the lab, I’ll be writing grants to get more funding for research, or writing research papers,” she says.

“Fighting this virus is a collaborative effort. We want to share our early findings more broadly.” 

Making sure nothing gets in or out
The process of leaving the module is just as arduous as entering – if not more. 

In the central chamber, there is a station where the scientists wipe the P3 respirator with alcohol before removing it. They hang it up to desiccate, so the alcohol and desiccation kills the virus.

Any material that touched the virus is also chemically decontaminated, sealed off and destroyed.

“There's no way that the virus could escape the facility,” says A/Prof Turville. “It’s very stringently managed.” 

The people who work in the lab are also routinely tested for the virus. 

“To make sure no one catches the virus in the real world and shut down the research, we have a tag-team case scenario with three sets of highly trained teams. 

“If one of them gets sick, we will rotate the teams and bring a new team online.” 

Stuart Turville and Alberto Ospina Stella in the Kirby Institute’s PC3 containment lab where they are working to grow the SARS-CoV-2 virus and determine how it responds to different treatments. Image: Richard Freeman / UNSW.

A race against time
The teams that have come together are working around the clock to fight against COVID-19.

“Our collaboration with Kirby has been amazing – everyone's been very cooperative and collaborative in getting the lab to the stage where we can work with SARS-CoV-2,” says Dr Stelzer-Braid.  

"A lot of people are working on this and everyone's working really, really hard. I hope that people find comfort in that."

A/Prof Turville is determined to work as quickly as they possibly can.

“With other viruses that we work on, like HIV, our freezers are already filled with the materials we need for our lab work – virus samples, reagents and drugs,” he says.

“SARS-CoV-2 is completely different. Whenever we discuss timelines in our meetings, it’s always – we needed that therapy yesterday, or last week. We needed the experiment a month ago.

“We’re working as fast as we possibly can to make something that can help keep the people in intensive care units alive.”

Lifesaving Ventilators To Be Made Locally

May 5, 2020
The NSW Government is partnering with local universities and manufacturers to produce ventilators as part of its COVID-19 response, with two prototypes already underway. 

A team of manufacturers and health workers working on a ventilator.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said pre-production is expected to take around six weeks and if a shelf-ready model complies with the necessary regulatory requirements, full production can begin.

“We know with the easing of restrictions there could be a rise in COVID-19 infections and if a second wave hits, we want our hospitals to have all the equipment they need,” Ms Berejiklian said.

“Pleasingly, five groups came forward to produce ventilator prototypes after our callout to industry, with two of those now selected for pre-production.

“If those models are confirmed to align with Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) requirements full production can commence, if our hospitals require more ventilators.”

Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the NSW Government is doing all it can to combat global shortages of vital medical equipment to ensure NSW has the back-up it needs.

“Every country around the world is facing disrupted medical supply chains but we need ventilators – they can be the difference between life and death,” Mr Hazzard said.

“COVID-19 infects cells in the lungs causing oxygen levels to drop and a ventilator is a crucial piece of equipment that helps critically ill patients to breathe.

“To have local manufacturers who are able to supply much-needed equipment to support frontline health workers – in this case a consortium led by the University of Sydney and another by Newcastle-based AmpControl – is absolutely invaluable.”

The NSW Government invested an extra $800 million to support NSW Health during the COVID-19 crisis, with $10 million to encourage NSW businesses to urgently undertake pilot projects to produce ventilators and other critical medical equipment.

Minister for Jobs, Investment and Tourism Stuart Ayres said the universities and industry groups involved will produce 10 units of each ventilator for further testing.

“Should these models (CoVida and Anemoi) be successful in completing the pre-production phase, they could not only benefit patients here but overseas, saving lives as well as creating jobs,” Mr Ayres said. 

“This ventilator program is a great example for others to follow. It shows how NSW manufacturers are adapting and upskilling to bolster the economy and employment.”

Electrical Activity In Living Organisms Mirrors Electrical Fields In Atmosphere

May 5, 2020
Most electrical activity in vertebrates and invertebrates occurs at extremely low frequencies, and the origin -- and medical potential -- of these frequencies have eluded scientists. Now a Tel Aviv University study provides evidence for a direct link between electrical fields in the atmosphere and those found in living organisms, including humans.

The study's findings may change established notions about electrical activity in living organisms, paving the way for revolutionary, new medical treatments. Illnesses such as epilepsy and Parkinson's are related to abnormalities in the electrical activity of the body.

"We show that the electrical activity in many living organisms -- from zooplankton in the oceans, to sharks and even in our brains -- is very similar to the electrical fields we measure and study in the atmosphere from global lightning activity," explains Prof. Colin Price of TAU's Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, who led the research for the study, published in the International Journal of Biometeorology on February 8.

Colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Alaska also contributed to the study.

"We hypothesise that over evolutionary timescales living organisms adapted and evolved to actually use the electricity in the environment -- global lightning," Prof. Price continues. "This has likely not changed over billions of years and is similar to the evolution of our eyes, which evolved using the sunlight nature gave us."

As living organisms evolved over billions of years, the natural electromagnetic resonant frequencies in the atmosphere, continuously generated by global lightning activity, provided the background electric fields for the development of cellular electrical activity. Prof. Price's research found that, in some animals, the electrical spectrum is difficult to differentiate from the background atmospheric electric field produced by lightning.

"Neither biologists nor doctors can explain why the frequencies in living organisms (0-50 Hz) are similar to those in the atmosphere caused by lightning," adds Prof. Price. "Most of them are not even aware of the similarity we presented in our paper."

"Our review of previous studies revealed that lightning-related fields may have positive medical applications related to our biological clock (circadian rhythms), spinal cord injuries and maybe other bodily functions related to electrical activity in our bodies," says Prof. Price. "The connection between the ever-present electromagnetic fields, between lightning in the atmosphere and human health, may have huge implications in the future for various treatments related to electrical abnormalities in our bodies."

The study comprised a retrospective review of previous studies on the link between lightning-related fields in the atmosphere and human and animal health. "We collected many different studies over the years to build a clear picture of this link," concludes Prof. Price. "Going forward, we need to design new experiments to see how these extremely low frequency fields from lightning may impact living organisms, and to investigate how these fields can be used to benefit us. One new experiment we are now planning is to see how these fields may impact the rate of photosynthesis in plants."

Colin Price, Earle Williams, Gal Elhalel, Dave Sentman. Natural ELF fields in the atmosphere and in living organisms. International Journal of Biometeorology, 2020; DOI: 10.1007/s00484-020-01864-6

Disclaimer: These articles are not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Pittwater Online News or its staff.