Learning From Nature

One of the most rewarding things about being an ecologist is the time you get to spend with Nature. As a research ecologist, those times don’t happen as often as you would like – we now spend more time at a computer, reading theory and background, analysing data, writing papers and applying for grants to do more research. However, doing field work gives you the chance to experience magnificent ecosystems, landscapes and wildlife that you might not have seen as a tourist. Those experiences, however fleeting, make the data analysis and administrative headaches all the more bearable!

My recent field work, collecting data for my PhD thesis, was in Victoria’s Murray Mallee (rhymes with ‘Sally’). The mallee is an ecologist’s paradise – full of ecological and geological wonders, and brimming with historical lessons that can guide our future. It is a Mediterranean biome, similar to the French garrigue or South African fynbos, and is one of Australia’s most enigmatically beautiful ecosystems. It’s kind of an ecological transition zone from the coastal plains and ranges of southern Australia, just before you get to the real desert in the heart of the continent. Continue reading

Boycott the Bottle

I came across a blog called TapThat that is documenting a campaign to eradicate the deadly water bottle from the University of New South Wales campus. It makes my soul do tiny little jigs inside when I discover groups like this that are trying to stop the problem of ubiquitous plastic at its source.

Some of you may remember, in 2009, when Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands of NSW became the first recognised town in the world to ban the sale (or giveaway) of bottled water, instead installing public water fountains.

Last year, the University of Canberra became the first uni in Australia to ban bottled water across its entire campus. (Check out the website http://www.gotap.com.au/for more examples of bottle-banning initiatives, both here and around the world).

Continue reading

Our fractured future

This post started as an embryonic thought in my mind nearly a year ago. It’s about coal seam gas (CSG) mining and hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ – terms that are even more of a conversation-killer than the topic of my last post.

There is still a great deal of vagueness around the CSG industry, and I think the exploration companies prefer it that way.

Yet there is enough information out there if you look for it. I won’t list all the (reputable and rational) discussions of evidence that fracking or CSG mining is bad for the environment and bad for people – if you’re interested, they’re not hard to find. DeSmogBlog, Yale environment360 and Mother Jones are a good start. Also a must-see is the movie Gasland, by Josh Fox. Continue reading

Biofuel is not the answer

I saw an article today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that claims to have the answer to the biofuel problem. Apparently agave, the plant that has provided a sugar alternative, rope, food, soap and tequila to centuries of human communities, has a bright new future as a bioethanol producer.

Biofuels are one of those contentious issues that everyone loves to argue about, so as to procrastinate the task of actually doing something about our increased fuel consumption. They’re wonderful in concept (plants take up CO2 from the atmosphere and then provide a ‘natural’, ‘renewable’, non-fossilised fuel source), but come with a whole suite of problems and unanswered questions, just like every other ‘quick-fix’ solution we’ve come up with in the past (and haven’t learnt from). Continue reading

Amazonian Avatar

I’ve previously written about the disasters that dams can cause (see Water Damage), as witnessed in the southeast Queensland floods earlier this year. Dams disrupt hydrological cycles and can cause landslides, flooding and even earthquakes. The Three Gorges dam in China is a classic example, and even the Chinese government has now admitted that the dam’s environmental impacts are worse than they previously acknowledged.

But dams can have much wider-reaching effects than landslides and floods years later. The damage starts at the construction stage – entire towns and communities have had to be moved and rebuilt elsewhere to make way for dams. Once flooded, whole ecosystems are wiped out, animals suddenly lose their home ranges, and fertile land is written off the map for good. Continue reading

Water Damage

Warning: The following post contains language and concepts offensive to supporters of dams or reservoirs!

Rocky Valley Dam, Falls Creek, NSW

To begin with the obvious, dams are controversial.  They supply water, power and recreation to millions of people around the world, yet they also have irreparable effects on water ecology and the surrounding landscape.  In warmer climates, they can contribute extra methane to the atmosphere from the decomposition of drowned organic matter.  There is even some debate in geophysical circles over whether the world’s dams have caused the Earth’s axis to tilt and changed its rotational speed.

While the blame for these shifts in the Earth’s position cannot be entirely placed on dams (earthquakes also have the ability to affect the Earth’s rotation or position in space) it raises a valid point.  We all know how much water weighs (a full bucket of water is too heavy for many people to lift easily), so hundreds of gigalitres of imprisoned water will of course have some effect on the Earth’s mass, however miniscule. Continue reading

An Albatross around their neck!

“Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”

I’ve written before about threats to the quality of rivers such as the Murray and the Daly due to overconsumption of their resources.  These stories are plastered across most media sources, so it is easy to assume that most people are aware of the same issues.

However, you realise this is not necessarily the case when you listen to local/regional radio channels, read regional newspapers or come across promotional material from regional political representatives.  So many people lack basic level education in the disciplines that describe natural processes (mainly science and geography).  How do they have the authority to make statements about these natural processes that influence and affect entire communities? Continue reading

Ode to the Murray

I’m using a few hundred words here to talk about the Murray River—a creature whose entire essence cannot be done justice in any number of words, written or spoken.

I recently stood on the banks of the Murray for the first time in my life—and I am not ashamed to say it made me cry.  I grew up in Queensland, where we are lucky enough to house the headwaters of the Murray’s equally majestic sister, the Darling.

But rivers are different up there.  Continue reading

Another day for the Daly

Is it human nature to run away from a problem, instead of trying to solve it?

When Australia began to face serious questions about the future of food and water security in the Murray-Darling Basin, those who could do something about it first disregarded the problem, and then, once it was beyond repair, immediately threw it into the too hard basket.

This avoidance tactic would let the Murray-Darling die an agonising death, while turning the focus onto the Kimberley-Top End region.  Continue reading