The East Gippsland Dry Continues

Tambo River stopped at Bark Sheds (image Lilli Antonoff)

Despite some good showers in Bairnsdale over summer the East Gippsland dry continues. How far it extends into central and south Gippsland I am not aware and without ploughing through the rainfall records I can only assume that it is still fairly dire across Gippsland but with a green flush in many places from the latest rain. The large bushfires that have burned at Rosedale, Walhalla and Timbarra over the last month indicate that the dry is still widespread across our region although they, too, have been subdued by the recent storms.

Another indicator of the dry may be water for irrigation. The Southern Rural Water website states “When river, creek and groundwater levels drop, Southern Rural Water often has to introduce rosters, restrictions or bans to ensure a fair distribution of available water to all licence holders.” I have been informed that irrigation on the Mitchell River may be “about to be banned” and that it is currently at Stage 9 – one step before a total ban.

Other anecdotal accounts abound.  Some farmers in the Swifts Creek district have been feeding out for 2 years although they have had some good summer rain. Lake Bunga at Lakes Entrance is almost as low as it can be without bursting out into the ocean and draining completely. The latter has only occurred 3 times in the last 30 years after periods of very heavy rainfall. It is also very salty indicating substantial water loss through evaporation.

This illustrates part of the problem of summer rainfall – that much more moisture is lost to evaporation and thus greater rainfall is required to make an impression on soil moisture. The rainfall is also often via storms which can result in heavy falls in some areas but varies substantially from place to place. Some time ago I was informed that parts of Glenaladale had missed most of the summer rains although hopefully they got some in the last dump.

Climate change predictions have been clear for many years; that the droughts we experience will be longer and more severe, and that they will often be broken by short periods of heavy rainfall causing floods. Such was the lot of the Omeo district in 1998. And if we need a reminder of what a grand disaster of this sort is like look to western Queensland now.

More on Bairnsdale’s Bat Die-off

A trailer load of carcases (image Shelly Nundra)

Our local throwaway the East Gippsland News (EGN) headlined the recent flying-fox die-off on the front page of the January 30 edition with ‘Bats overcome by Heat’. The EGN quoted police sources that the “incident had been declared a ‘natural emergency’” and that the “bats are diseased”.  Its emphasis was on a ‘natural emergency’ and ‘natural event’. An opponent of the Bairnsdale colony was interviewed without balance from Bairnsdale Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland group. There was no mention of the fact that clear-fell logging had reduced both their roosting sites and food supply. Climate change was not mentioned.

There is some basis of fact in the official statements and actions both with regards the ‘natural’ aspect of the event and ‘disease’. But both are misleading in the extreme and the die-off could at no stage be classified as a ‘human’ or ‘natural’ emergency. The police statement implied that all the bats were ‘diseased’ when in fact less than 1% of the bats in Australia carry the lyssavirus and as far as I am aware it has never been detected in the bats in the Bairnsdale colony. Further a bat carrying the virus has to bite someone to transfer the virus.

The probability of a death occurring as a result of lyssavirus from a bat is therefore extremely small and can hardly be called an ‘emergency’. The total number of known fatalities from lyssavirus in Australia is exactly three. So you have a far greater chance of being struck by lightning. On the other hand the increasing number of heatwaves making inroads into the flying-fox colonies are also killing humans. The heatwave that preceded and included Black Saturday caused an extra 370 fatalities in south-east Australia, some of whom, no doubt, were resident in Gippsland. So where is the real emergency to be found?

Whether the heatwave that caused the die-off was ‘natural’ is another matter. Whilst again it is true that we have had heatwaves before with climate change we are now experiencing them as longer, hotter and more frequent events. The temperature at which the bats begin to die is 42 degrees C. For human beings the temperatures at which we begin to die is less, especially when a heatwave over a number of days includes exceptionally high overnight minimum temperatures which prevents the body from recovering from the daytime heat. These temperatures are dry bulb temperatures.

I have written elsewhere in some detail about wet bulb temperatures. The thermometer that measures these temperatures has a wet cloth wrapped around the bulb and essentially it measures times of high temperatures with exceptionally high humidity. We start dying at wet bulb temperatures of about 30 degrees. Above 37 degrees because the body is unable to cool itself by sweating we all die without artificial cooling.

So the threat to human health is via climate change and the tragic demise of the Bairnsdale bats is another warning that our warming planet is more than an environmental problem or a ‘natural emergency’. It is an existential one. Whether we like it or not we are already in a climate emergency.

Greenhouse – the Monash 1987 Conference

In 1987 the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics held a conference at Monash University on the greenhouse effect. Entitled “Greenhouse 87: Planning for Climate Change” the papers presented to the conference were published in a volume edited by G.I. Pearman Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change (CSIRO 1988). This volume went to 752pages and there were 260 attendees at the conference. Over 100 papers were presented by prominent scientists including Barrie Pittock, David Karoly, Eric Bird and Pearman himself.

The title of Pearman’s lead paper was “Greenhouse gases: evidence for atmospheric changes and anthropogenic causes” and he noted all the papers were “refereed and revised”. Importantly the conference was opened by Barry Jones then Minster for Science in the Hawke government. Beyond noting that there was a science minister, the most important aspect of Jones opening the conference is that knowledge of the threat posed by global warming went to the highest level of government. Thirty years later a climate change denying coalition still conducts a rear-guard action against the science.

But much else has changed in those 30 years. The evidence from a wide variety of sources confirms many of these early predictions and most emphatically the basic physics of the greenhouse effect.  Only a few mercenary journalists in the columns of the Australian and other Murdoch publications, some politicians in reactionary think tanks and a coterie of social media activists carry on their campaigns of denying both the basic science and the accumulated and overwhelming evidence of a warming planet that is now available.

As computer power has increased exponentially climate models have become more sophisticated and this remains a work in progress. One recent advance has been the science of ‘climate attribution’ or working out the likelihood of an extreme weather event occurring with and without climate change. This is done by running computers through a number of variables millions of times.  Also more sophisticated communications and the rise of the social media has meant that reasonably accurate information can be readily dispersed although the bogie of ‘false news’ (read climate denial propaganda) sometimes confuses the issue.

The point remains that the basics of the greenhouse effect have been known for well over a century and that has not changed. The failure of the media (with one or two exceptions) to join the dots and alert the public to this dire threat is paramount. That a number of concerted and mostly well financed campaigns continue to deny the science, confuse the public and importantly delay political attempts at tackling the problem is criminally negligent.

‘Canaries in the Coalmine’: Bairnsdale’s bat deaths

(image Shelly Nundra)

The tragic news of the loss of one third of the grey headed flying-fox colony in Bairnsdale – due to the excessive heat of Friday 25th when the maximum temperature of 45.8 was just short of the record* – was widely reported across the media. This included mainstream media reports in the Guardian, the Age and the ABC through to a front page header in the local throwaway, the East Gippsland News.

Of all the reports I have read only ABC Gippsland journalist Emma Field mentioned climate change as a contributing factor. She tweeted: “More than 2,000 flying foxes die from heat stress in eastern Victoria. I read a flying fox expert [who] calls these events the ‘canary is the coal mine’ for climate change.” The tweet was a link to her online article on the event which unfortunately did not include any reference to climate change or the ‘flying fox expert’.

The implications of Field’s ‘canary in the coal mine’ quote are not spelled out and the expert she is referring to is Justin Welbergen.** Welbergen used the metaphor in the title of his 2014 conference paper “Canaries in the coalmine: flying-foxes and extreme heat events in a warming climate”.  The paper dealt in detail with the overwhelming evidence of global warming and how this increased the likelihood of extreme hot days occurring.

The paper stated that “The probability that a grey-headed flying-fox will encounter temperatures greater than 42C has increased almost three-fold since the 1970s” and that besides climate change, man-made factors threatening flying-fox populations included “ongoing loss of foraging and roosting habitat”. As well as adversely affecting our carbon store the intensive clear fell logging practiced in Gippsland for the last 50 years has also severely restricted the flying-fox options of food and home.

Welbergen also confirmed that “Beyond 42C thermoregulatory mechanisms become overwhelmed and individuals begin to die” and that “There is little doubt that as summers become hotter [with global warming] die-offs will become more frequent and widespread.” Finally he noted that “Flying-fox die-offs are particularly conspicuous events” and that “heat related die-offs have been reported in other fauna including koalas…”

The original ‘canary in the coal mine’ metaphor was a practical way for coal miners to protect their safety. The dead canary was an advanced warning of danger. As used by Welbergen the metaphor, exemplified in the current die-off, is an otherwise unspoken warning to Gippslanders and all humanity. It is we who are being warned. If climate change can decimate the flying-fox populations we almost certainly will be next.

* record maximum temperature 46.2 on Black Saturday (7.2.09)

** I have Lisa Roberts of Bairnsdale Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland group to thank for providing me with the Justin Welbergen paper. An earlier paper published by the Royal Society can be found here.

Searching for Climate Independents

Signing the Climate Emergency Declaration

 

The Independents for Climate Action Now Party is calling for candidates to nominate in the upcoming Federal Election. As well there will no doubt be a plethora of Independent candidates across the board some of whom will be concerned about climate change. What then are suitable qualifications for such candidates?

Primarily the candidates should be well-known and if standing for the Senate preferably known nationally or at least appearing regularly in the main stream media of the state in which they are standing. Examples include John Hewson, Tony Windsor and Kerryn Phelps. Standing in the lower house candidates should have a high profile locally* including such assets as making regular media appearances, experience as a local councilor, previous candidature in state or federal election within the same electorate and polling quite well (that is receiving more than 4% of the primary vote); membership and office bearer of one or more local organisations and with a substantial local network. This list can be quite extensive. An example of the latter is Cathy McGowan who won the conservative seat of Indi. She was a former liberal party member and had a widespread and well organised community network.

A strong grasp of climate science is also a prerequisite. This does not mean that the candidate should be a scientist or have formal scientific training but understand the basics of the greenhouse effect and be familiar with ideas of popularisers like Tim Flannery. Non-scientists such as journalists may have an advantage by being able to spread their message in easily understandable terms. Preferably the candidate should also be a signatory of, or willing to sign, the climate emergency declaration.

Other qualifications of some note include the fact that women seem to have done very well in Victorian country electorates and a number polled very well in conservative seats at the recent state election. The candidate ideally should represent the political leanings of their electorate and those formerly members of the Nats and the Libs should be welcomed and supported. They should have a ‘squeaky clean’ record and not be tarnished or stained in any way. And having said all this it should be noted that at least one youthful inexperienced candidate made amazing headway in a conservative seat in the recent Victorian election by dint of hard work and good old fashioned canvassing.

Climate change with its threats and solutions – especially jobs in the bush – should be prominent in the promotional material of climate independents. There should be cross party and NGO co-ordination and organization to support these candidates whether part of a formal party or not. We need a large number of candidates speaking out on climate change to help make this election a climate referendum. And hopefully we will have prominent climate independents in both the Monash and Gippsland electorates.

*high profile candidates Zali Steggall and Oliver Yates have just announced their candidacy – Steggall will stand in Warringah as a Climate Independent against our climate denier in chief Tony Abbott, and Yates will stand in Kooyong.

Bairnsdale’s Bats and the Climate Emergency

 

Bairnsdale’s flying foxes are in the news again (see image) with the high temperatures the town has just experienced causing a dramatic increase in their deaths*. The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) have declared a ‘natural emergency’ because of the possible association of the bats with disease, and prohibited people from walking along the Mitchell River between the old port and the Lind Bridge. DELWP also reported the “large amount of heat stressed bats that are down low in trees”.

Ironically there is an emergency that extends well beyond Bairnsdale and Gippsland and is the direct cause of the bat deaths – extreme temperatures exacerbated by man-made global warming. Unlike the local ‘natural’ emergency which is a just possible (and minor) threat to humans the climate emergency is killing people now around the globe and directly threatens human existence. 

After a similar heatwave in 2013 I wrote: “If the winter presence of the flying foxes is not another indicator of climate change then their (and our) vulnerability to heatwaves almost certainly is. The summer of 2013 saw a number of bat fatalities in the Bairnsdale colony during a brief heatwave where temperatures reached 42 C. It appears the flying fox is extremely vulnerable to prolonged heatwaves and 42-3C appears to be the critical temperature threshold. Of recent years there have been substantial heatwave fatalities in SE Brisbane, Casino, NSW and other places…”

With reference to disease Sue Churchill in her Australian Bats (Reed New Holland 1998) stated “bats are very clean creatures that groom themselves meticulously; and healthy bats are very disease free”(p.25) although noting the connection between bats and lyssavirus had just been discovered as the book went to press. Churchill noted lyssavirus is a rabies related virus which she deals with in 3 pages and concludes “living near a flying fox colony…is no danger” but advises not to “handle live bats unless it is essential”. Less than 1% of the wild population carry lyssavirus** and this can only be transmitted by bite. Following Churchill’s advice means they are not a threat.

The grey headed flying fox is essential for pollinating more than 80 species of Australian plants and is threatened on many fronts. The wholesale reduction of native forests by the logging industry not only reduces a food source of the flying fox it also contributes directly to global warming by adding extra greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – at least in the short term. And in the climate emergency, the real emergency, there is no long term. ***

The heatwaves and the fatalities of the flying fox are a wake-up call for Gippslanders. For if the bats are wiped out then we are next on the list. DELWP, along with our coal generators, carries a substantial amount of responsibility for the climate emergency, as do we all. The flying fox fatalities are just another reminder that urgent action on climate change is needed now.

*literally “hundreds” Lisa Roberts. Another local account suggests “possibly two thousand”. Maximum official temperature 45.2C on 25.1.18.

** Lisa Roberts

***the interim Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change report(2018) gives us until 2030 to ‘possibly’ avert major climate catastrophe. See here.

Independents for Climate Action Now

ICAN is the latest in a string of political ‘climate’ parties endeavouring to make some impact on the Australian political scene. I have written on a number of occasions about the history of climate parties over the last 10 years (see here and here). There has yet to be one of these parties that has had any resilience or staying power. Mostly they have been born of hope and overoptimism and short lived. Of the 2 parties that have successfully registered with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) – the Climate Change Coalition (CCC) and the Renewable Energy Party (REP) – both disappeared after disastrous initial election performances, although a small group, including yours truly, unsuccessfully attempted to save the latter.

As well as ICAN there are currently two* other unregistered political parties – the Climate Democrats aiming for the centre voter and Save the Planet (STP) appealing to the left of the greens. Both appear to be well short of the membership (500) necessary for registration although the latter group has been in existence for a number of years. Prior to joining the REP I was a member of this organisation. ICAN membership is currently over 700 and AEC registration was applied for earlier this month. Hopefully this will be successful.

The ICAN website has amongst other important information a link to activist Jane Morton’s “Don’t Mention the Emergency” booklet. The news however is a little bit dated and it is very important that members know what is happening and are continually informed. I suggest that the news page could be updated on a regular basis – say fortnightly – and a monthly email newsletter be available for those interested. Links to the party’s social media sites would also be helpful.

One of the main problems with single issue parties of this nature is their somewhat naïve approach to electoral politics. Both the climate parties previously registered with the AEC – the CCC and the REP – collapsed after one election, in 2007 and 2016 respectively. Both parties concentrated on the Senate with minimal House of Reps candidates and all of their candidates lost their deposits. It is most unlikely that any new party will get a Senator elected except my accident.

A climate party is necessary to help frame the debate and the process of winning seats should be secondary. The appeal across the political spectrum is one of the positives of ICAN and makes it a direct successor to the CCC.  And if it is not tarnished with the left/green brush it can appeal to voters in very conservative electorates, especially in the bush.

The primacy of global warming and the need for urgent action should be thrust before the electorate at every opportunity. Party loyalty is meaningless in the face of the climate emergency. Co-operation and co-ordination between these groups is essential as it is with the numerous extra-parliamentary groups. A single issue climate party is another ‘string in the bow’ to radically transform our politics. But above all we must work to make the next federal election a ‘climate election’.

*I have just found another – One Planet

Some Gippsland Climate Predictions

Ocean Warming 2018

A fair amount of doom and gloom pervades the social media on the fate of humanity in the face of global warming. Too much pessimism inhibits any motivation to combat or solve the problem. But concerted action is required with the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stating urgent action is needed to limit the human caused warming of the planet to 1.5C

It is possible with the information before us to already state with some certainty what is most likely to happen. On the down side the inertia (think energy embodied in a truck without brakes moving down a hill) built into the climate system means that the planet will keep warming and sea level rising for many years even if we could stop all greenhouse gas emissions immediately. And the associated extreme weather events continue to worsen.

On the upside the solar revolution and the path to 100% renewable energy is going to happen very quickly regardless of the last ditch stand by vested interests and our politicians. Somewhat ironically the rather pathetic renewable energy target of the governing party (as opposed to their also rather pathetic target for greenhouse gas reductions) will be easily achieved.  An apolitical message of hope is delivered persuasively by Tony Seba and the revolution will happen very quickly for economic reasons. A similar message of hope is spread by Prof. Ray Wills in Australia.

What does this mean for Gippsland? The Seba/Wills predictions suggest the following. By 2030 the Latrobe Valley generators have closed as have all of the offshore oil and gas rigs. They have been replaced by large offshore wind farms, large solar farms covering partially reclaimed open cuts and other generator properties and solar panels and lithium batteries are found everywhere. Floating solar farms partially cover a number of reservoirs and a number of pumped hydro plants are operating. Motive power – buses tractors cars – is all electric and the Sea Electric vehicle manufacturer in Morwell a major employer. Quite a few internal combustion vehicles are still on the roads but they have no value and are expensive to run. By 2050 these have all vanished – Gippsland is 100% renewable and an energy exporter manufacturing hydrogen from water – not coal.

On the downside sea levels continue to rise over the next 30 years with regular flooding of downtown Lakes and Paynesville occurring and there is severe erosion along the 90 mile. The rainfall totals remains about the same but the rain falls mostly in late spring and summer as torrential downpours. Rain from the south west and west is negligible, but flash flooding is common. For the rest of the year it is dry and warm, droughts continue as the main weather pattern and bushfires burn throughout the year with catastrophic fires occurring through a lengthening summer and autumn.

We need to be planning and preparing to counter this predicted downside – a sense of urgency is required. Whilst reaching carbon neutrality will be a major achievement the major task will be carbon drawdown to return the earth’s climate to liveable sustainable temperatures. And to counter all the complications of the warming – especially the droughts, heatwaves and bushfires – by 2050 we will be in climate emergency mode with a war time style emergency government.

“Jellyfish and Chips”

Unidentified Jellyfish in the Gippsland Lakes (Scott)

Jellyfish have been in the news* recently with an article on the ABC by Hong Jiang and Sasha Fegan  linking them with climate change noting how they have been blocking the water intakes of power plants in Japan and how suited they are to taking advantage of global warming’s warmer waters. This was followed by a podcast of Phillip Adams interviewing jellyfish scientist Juli Berwald and a Guardian article on a large number of tourists being stung by them on Queensland’s beaches.

This reminded me of the series entitled ‘Jellyfish and Chips’ by Inverloch artist Ray Dahlstrom whose work I have written about on several occasions (see here and here ). This series – commenced more than 5 years ago – depicts our oceans overwhelmed by jellyfish with the skeletal remains of fish on dark blue canvas; a foreboding apocalyptic vision. The artist saw this proliferation as a result mainly of our oceans slowly acidifying – a sort of by-product of burning fossil fuels and global warming. When the warming oceans are added to the acidification Ray’s prophetic vision may well materialise before our eyes.

It also reminded me of a very early post to this blog of a new species of unidentified jellyfish** (image above) found in the Gippsland Lakes.This species was first found in 2013 by Gippsland Lakes identity Ross Scott and it was suggested that the species had migrated southwards with our warming waters. The warming oceans off our coast have been clearly measured and identified by the Bureau of Meteorology and others as a ‘hotspot’. This Xmas time I observed unusually large numbers of small jellyfish in the brackish waters of Lake Bunga but they are now gone.

Imagine a fishing industry destroyed by exploding populations of jellyfish and a tourist industry blighted by a range of new and toxic, stinging species colonising our beaches. And if there is no fishing and no swimming, Lakes Entrance will hardly survive long enough to be submerged by floods and rising seas. “Jellyfish and Chips” indeed.

*For the latest general account see here

**This species is still awaiting identification and is now in Cairns with ex CSIRO Jellyfish expert Lisa-ann Gershwin

Scrublands: a brief review

 

When I picked up Chris Hammer’s Scrublands (Allen & Unwin 2018) from the local library* I had forgotten I had ordered it and more importantly why I had done so. It is a whodunit/ thriller set in the fictitious town of Riversend an hour’s drive from the Murray River in New South Wales involving drugs, bikies, mass murder, and a ferocious and at times misleading media pack. As the ‘whodunnit’ genre of fiction is my reading for relaxation this was my first assumption.

But Scrublands is a climate fiction novel without mentioning the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming once in its 481 pages. The first lines set the scene: “The day is still. The heat having eased during the night, is building again; the sky is cloudless, the sun punishing. Across the road, down by what’s left of the river, the cicadas are generating a wall of noise…” The setting is drought and scorching heat that melts the bitumen – that of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change. It follows you through the book to the very end where the “day is hot and the day is barren. The morning’s breeze has died and the sun hangs over Riversend like a sentencing judge.” (p.457)

Hammer in his author’s note explains the “setting for Scrublands emerged from my travels in the summer of 2008-09 at the height of the millennium drought…” – a drought recent accounts** state was heavily influenced by climate change. “Martin sits next to Goffing, sipping his tea and looking up at the sky. He knows that somewhere in the world there must be clouds; there has to be. Somewhere it is raining; somewhere it is pelting down… Here there are no clouds and no rain, the drought can’t last forever; he knows it, everyone knows it. It’s just become hard to believe.” (p.443)

Then there are the bushfires. “The heat is worse. Yesterday’s wind has turned hot and dusty. Gusting in from the north-west, propelling fine particles of dust and carrying the threat of fire” (p.76) and the following bushfire is dealt with in some detail from pages 94 to105. The heat continues: “Outside the heat is waiting. It no longer comes as an affront or a surprise, merely as an accepted constant, bearing down on the weight of existence, all that he deserves. He walks to the shade of the shop awnings…” (p.225)

In reality this is depicting our heatwaves: “The heat is rising although it’s still only nine-thirty in the morning and the sun is a long way from its zenith…The temperature already in the high twenties, will climb much higher. He might be acclimatised to the dry heat but no-one acclimatises to forty degrees.” (p.452)

The town name Riversend is allegorical. Its message is that the town, with continuing heatwaves and bushfires, without water, has no future. And that can be extended to the nation. Much of Australia is now feeling these blistering heatwaves and droughts and both are occurring earlier and lasting longer. For Australia perhaps the grim future has already arrived?

*copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library

**Gergis, J. The Sunburnt Country, MUP, 2018 p.101 “the duration of the Millenium drought was unprecedented in the instrumental record…The likelihood of observing a long sequence of dry years by chance was less than 0.5 per cent.” –