October 31, 2013

The sea, the sea

In 2000, I caught a ferry across the North Sea from Esbjerg in Denmark to Harwich. As we neared the Essex coast, I peered over the side of the vessel and was surprised to see swirls of orangey-brown... er, stuff, near the surface. I didn't expect such a well-used waterway to be clean or teeming with life, but neither did I think it would be opaque. I never got to the bottom of what it was – an algal bloom of some sort, or petroleum sludge, or sewage – but it was not pleasant.

At least a decade later, and half a world away, I witnessed some of the clearest sea water I've ever seen – off the east coasts of Tasmania and New Zealand's South Island, in particular. Near Kaikoura I saw what looked like a wall of fish, which was extraordinary... and increasingly rare, I fear.
Last week I read something that made me very depressed, which, since I read a lot of environmental stuff, happens quite often. But this article was worse than most. It described a yachtsman who repeated a 37,000-km journey he'd made ten years before, from Australia to Japan and then across the Pacific. Previously, he'd caught fish every day but this time noticed a 'severe lack of marine life'. There were no dolphins playing alongside his boat, or turtles, or whales passing by, or even birds accompanying him. He also encountered huge amounts of rubbish, some of it large and a danger to his boat. He would only use the motor during the day when someone could keep watch for large pieces of debris in his path. He chooses words such as 'dead' and 'barren' to describe thousands of the kilometres he covered. You, too, can get depressed... at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/21/yachtsman-describes-horror-at-dead-rubbish-strewn-pacific-ocean

I don't know if the yachtie sailed through the Great Pacific garbage patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. Estimates of the size of this dreadful phenomenon vary widely depending on the size of the plastic particles you use to define it, but it could be as much as 15 million square kilometres, or twice the size of the North American continent (24.7 million square kilometres x 2). It consists of plastic, chemical sludge and other debris trapped in the circulatory systems of the North Pacific. The effects on wildlife are dire, of course: you may have seen photographs of the plastic contents of the stomachs of sea birds that have starved to death. Albatrosses on Midways Atoll eat a lot of plastic and as many as a third of their chicks die as a result.

Overfishing is obviously a major reason why there were few fish for our boatie friend to catch. We have been surprised here how unaware most people seem to be of dwindling supplies of their favourite fish. They blithely go out most weekends in their boats with their mates, oblivious of the fact that it's not just commercial fishing that is depleting stocks. There are millions of recreational fishers in Australia. And bycatch is not only a problem when you're dragging an enormous net across the ocean floor.

For some years marine scientists have noticed reduced numbers of ocean predators*. The reasons are many and various, from overfishing to habitat change, pollution to increased demand for shark's fin soup. The loss of top-end predators has serious consequences all the way down the food chain. The decline in shark numbers off the North Carolina coast, for example, lead to a dramatic proliferation of their prey, cownose rays, which expanded into areas where previously shark had lurked. The rays decimated the local scallops, not to mention the century-old scallop fishing industry. Such cascade effects on the food chain can even impact on the regulation of carbon emissions **. Everything joins up in the end.

I'm sure few people underestimate the importance of the world's oceans in regulating climate. We've learned recently from climate scientists that the sea has been absorbing much more carbon from the atmosphere than was previously thought. This is not the time to abandon marine park maintenance or fishing quotas, or increase the chances of environmental damage to an already challenged Great Barrier Reef, or turn a deaf ear to very inconvenient truths.
* http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714142133.htm
** http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130617160902.htm

October 27, 2013

Meanwhile, back in Court...

Friday was final submission day in the Land Court. Unfortunately, we were competing with the bikie gangs for the attention of television crews, and the bikies won hands down. Over the last couple of days they have been appearing in Brisbane Magistrates Court following Campbell Newman's stringent crackdown on their illegal activities. Recent new legislation and its enforcement methods are highly controversial. I am no fan of motorcycle gangs but there are serious human and civil rights issues here that make me uncomfortable.

This was the last chance for the graziers of the Galilee Basin who are worried about their water supply, and community environmental groups concerned about the wider implications of nine mega mines producing 330 million tonnes of coal a year for 30 years, to challenge the approval of Hancock Coal's Alpha mine (see also Farmers vs Big Coal 12 and 3, September 2013).

The landowners spoke by videolink from Emerald Magistrates Court so as not to have to make the long trek to Brisbane for a few hours only. All were greatly concerned that the groundwater on which their livelihoods depend is at risk from mining. They share a belief that baseline monitoring* should have been carried out over a longer period and a cumulative impact assessment (of all the mines proposed) should have preceded the approval of the Alpha project; and Make-good Agreements (MGAs) between landowners and mining companies should, similarly, be in place before approvals are granted. Paola Cassoni pleaded for an impartial agency to monitor compliance with MGAs, and denounced the attachment of confidentiality clauses that undermine trust and solidarity within the Galilee's farming communities, and would prevent landholders from objecting to water licences to de-water the aquifer above the coal seams.

The cumulative impact of several Galilee mines and management plans to deal with the consequences of construction and operation on the water supplies of properties adjoining the Alpha Mining Lease Area (MLA), or indeed any of the other MLAs, are crucial to these landowners' water security. What if the groundwater modelling is wrong, Jericho landholder Bruce Currie asked, and there is serious impact on his bores? And, down the line, how does he prove which mine is responsible?

The elephant in the courtroom throughout these proceedings has been the Great Artesian Basin (GAB). The Galilee Basin lies to the east of GAB, but insufficient hydrogeological data made a vexed issue of the question of recharge of aquifers, for example. Hancock's claim that the GAB will not be impacted by the Alpha project is taken as read, is it? Not up for discussion, or inclusion in an assessment of the cumulative impact of all the region's mines? Or is it that Hancock in no way wishes to open the enormous can of worms (especially with regard to water licences) that the GAB would prove to be? There was no impact in the Alpha modelling, but the results of modelling depend upon its parameters, one of which is the western boundary, the hydrogeological details of which could not be agreed upon by expert witnesses.

But I digress...

The landowners' feelings of powerlessness were palpable despite legal etiquette. Janeice Anderson spoke of being between a rock and a hard place; Mr Currie stated that he had nothing to gain and everything to lose, unlike Alpha Coal; Paola Cassoni asked the Court to consider how many landholders would want to take a multinational company to court for breach of contract.

Counsel for the Coast and Country Association of Queensland (CCAQ) questioned two basic assumptions of Hancock Coal: that coal is good, and everyone supports the mining and export of coal; and that whatever has to happen to the environment will be OK because the mining company will be able to manage it. Unjust and unproven assertions were being made, he claimed: that the demand for coal will continue; and that the impact on groundwater is fully understood. He doubted that ecologically sustainable development could be maintained under the legislative framework, but nevertheless asked that the framework be applied in this case in order to determine if the evidence presented to Court stood up.

CCAQ counsel and the Judge debated the rather schizophrenic relationship of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) and the Mineral Resources Act (MRA) with reference to the mining industry. The MRA assumes that mining is in the interest of the common good, while the EPA recommends the precautionary principle be applied: the MRA ties a judge's hands when it comes to conditions of approval, while the EPA requires that he decides whether there is sufficient evidence to show that what is proposed is amenable to the management of the conditions imposed.

Hancock's legal team suggested the Judge adopt a holistic approach, and not necessarily aim to tick all the boxes but rather establish a level of acceptability in balancing competing interests. That the MLA is to be mineralized is not in dispute and neither is the fact that there will be an impact in the MLA – within an 'acceptable level'. Future uncertainty does not mitigate against the approval of the mine now, Hancock's counsel argued. They also played down the relevance of groundwater impact management at this stage. Groundwater modelling is the issue in this case, under 'the statutory scheme'; the impacts on groundwater will be dealt with robustly during the water licensing process (under the Water Act). They dismissed some expert witnesses' disagreement with the groundwater modelling parameters as insignificant.

Above all, Hancock obviously do not want their application held up by any consideration of changes to the wider assessment procedures. Their counsel pointed out that the Judge should only be concerned with their application, not those of other mining companies in the future. Hancock have conducted a 'rigorous assessment process' and the Co-ordinator General's 'suite of conditions' adequately protects the landowners and establishes monitoring safeguards.

Finally, they reiterated their belief that the Alpha mine will not contribute to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions – since the coal is intended for export and coal production is determined by demand, if Hancock don't feed that demand, somebody else will – or climate change in Queensland. And, as far as ecology is concerned, they claim to have provided an adequate response to the impact of the mine in what is a highly disturbed area. Counsel even went so far as to claim that their biodiversity offsetting management plan would improve it.

The Judge raised some interesting points: would it not be to all parties' benefit if there was greater baseline monitoring since this is a previously unmined region, and that it should be a prerequisite of approval; this is a green field site and its development is therefore of interest to the wider community; the potential loss of groundwater to the landowners, say, ten years from now, should not entirely be the responsibility of the mining companies but perhaps shared by the Queensland Government, who are, after all, receiving mining royalties.

The last player in the day's proceedings was counsel for the Statutory Party, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, since we'd heard very little from him throughout the case up to this point. He pointed out that matters concerning the quality of groundwater were the remit of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that the 'take' of water was the concern of the Department of Resources and Mines. He expressed an opinion that not all of the day's submissions had related to the evidence and advised the Judge to be cautious. He was confident that any impacts of mining would be capable of management by the suite of conditions at four levels: Commonwealth, the Queensland Co-ordinator General, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and water licensing. He finished by describing the limitations on the Judge's conditional power, which was not at all what most people in the public gallery wanted to hear.

The Judge now goes away with a mountain of paper as well as substantial electronic material, and will deliver his recommendations, hopefully, within three months. We left court and tried to be positive about the outcome (Coast and Country Association of Queensland supporters and their legal advisors, below).
* the establishment and operation of a designed surveillance system for continuous or periodic measurements and recording of existing and changing conditions that will be compared with future observations

October 20, 2013

The devil's in the dust

Parched landscapes turn grey; and dusty. If the wind blows hard, dust gets whipped up. And then the farmers and the graziers of Central, Western and Northern Queensland have another battle on their hands: along with searing drought; destructive storms; flooding rains; bush fires, voracious locust swarms; invasive species, ferals and pests.

In four years of occasional extreme weather events and their consequences, I have witnessed Aussies bouncing back with the kind of resilience in the face of adversity that most people associate with wartime. The devastation in the Lockyer Valley and the Brisbane clean-up following the floods of January 2011; hail storms in December 2012 followed by the remnants of Cyclone Oswald a month later that wiped out citrus growers in the North Burnett; and the ravaging bush fires of southeast Tasmania earlier this year are three incidents that immediately spring to mind. The image of a grandmother and five children in the sea, clinging to a jetty while everything burned around them, is not easy to forget. In each case, the stoicism on display was extraordinary; although I'm sure many a broken spirit was nursed behind closed doors.

Australians are adept at preparation for life-threatening events. They know how to pare and dampen down their backyards and houses to minimise the risk of bush fires; they know how to batten down in the path of a Tropical Cyclone; and they are constantly advised to stock up on appropriate rations should an extreme weather event take out their power supply or sever their lines of communication.

Farmers in northern Queensland have been doing it tough, as the Aussies say, for a while now. The rains didn't come last summer; the cattle are hungry, and what little feed remains is being coated in dust. Graziers in the Channel Country have only had 30 mm of rainfall since January, the driest it's been for years. Scientists who run a DustWatch* programme across northern Australia are predicting a big year for dust. There have been 15 'dust events' in a month in Birdsville. Dr Craig Strong of Griffith University explains that, as well as drought causing vegetation to die back, some sediments deposited in the Eyre Basin by floodwaters in recent years have started to break down, and wind systems are still moving across this part of the world. The rainfall outlook for the coming months is not encouraging.

Dust gets into machinery and into houses. I can't help feeling, however, that Aussies would spend less time shovelling dirt out of their homes if they sealed their windows and doors. It doesn't seem to happen much here. We recently moved into a relative new-build and the large gaps and rattling have to be seen and heard to be believed.
I have to conclude that sturdier houses generally – as well as burying power lines underground – would reduce the damage from and costs of cyclone and storm. Roofs fly off and buildings collapse like houses of cards. I know both ideas would be hugely expensive, but would the one-off costs be greater than those of constantly repairing power infrastructure and settling buildings insurance claims?

There's obviously not much to see in a dust storm, but here's a photograph of one supplied to the ABC by a pastoralist from Noonbah near Stonehenge, southwest of Longreach.
* http://dustwatch.edu.au – community-based wind erosion monitoring across Australia

October 12, 2013

Dear Byron...

I will always love you. That is not in doubt, but...

(There's never been a but until last weekend. It was previously unimaginable.)

...last weekend had a public holiday tacked on to it. It was a public holiday that shouldn't have been there. Labour Day is in May, right? May 1st, or as near as dammit. That is the tradition and that is how it should be. Not in October. Labour Day is not something Campbell Newman can move around, willy nilly, in order to spread holidays evenly throughout the year, or show the labour movement who's boss. If he absolutely had to create a spring holiday, he could have moved Queenie's birthday. It never coincides with her actual birthday, so it doesn't matter which day it is officially. And since when does Queensland want to be in line with other states?

We all know what happens on public holidays, especially in Byron. You can't get a room even if your life depended upon it, and room rates double, at least. And the minimum number of nights you have to book increases in direct proportion to the length of the weekend. That makes me feel ripped off. And it was intended to be a day trip, for the Sunday Market (first Sunday of every month), for christmas presents. It was only when I got there and fell under your spell, and couldn't bear to leave you after so little time – and wanted to shop and beach again on Monday – that I needed to stay. But it was impossible for less than $500.

So, whatever happened to spontaneity? You go to a place, you love it, you fancy getting a room for the night so you can savour it some more. No chance. 'Sorry, we're fully booked. It's a holiday weekend.' Yes, I know. That's why I want a room.

I got well grumpy. I never do grumpy in Byron. But nothing was normal. I had to wait an hour and ten minutes for my takeaway fish and chips, so we could eat before driving back to Brisbane, which I didn't want to do. I stood outside Mongers in Bay Lane – near where the smelly bins usually are but weren't, mercifully – for what felt like forever. I eventually tasted some of the best fish and chips you'll find west of Winnetka, but it wasn't worth the kind of wait I should have been forewarned about. I don't think I'll be going back there, or recommending it, which I've done hundreds of times in my capacity as Byron guru.

And the Daylight Saving business. It really is time for another vote in Queensland, isn't it? I've tried to get used to it for nearly four years; the getting dark at 5 pm in winter and 6.30 in the summer. It sucks. I want lighter evenings, please. I don't want to go to bed with the birds, and I don't want to wake up with them either, at 4 am in summer. I don't always want to barbecue at lunchtime; sometimes I want to do it in the evening, but not in the dark. Do you understand? (This bit of the letter is to Queensland, not you, Byron.)

I knew that New South Wales had changed its clocks the night before. But we were awake early, away by 7.30, Queensland time. By the time we were approaching BB, however, the queue into town was halfway back to the highway and hardly moving, so we had to turn back and go a secret way, slowly following a car creating an enormous dust cloud. This meant I couldn't do what I ALWAYS do, the ritual, driving into Main Beach car park and breathing in my first glance of one of the most beautiful bays on earth, looking out along Belongil to Mt Warning and the other pointy bits of the caldera.

The market and the music were as good as ever, but it was hot, at almost midday. There was Pasión Flamenca, and the man with the voice to melt a thousand hearts (and induce goose bumps) and get the Byron characters doing their thing.
Later, Broken Head beach was a tad crowded. By Aussie standards, I mean.
Back in town, after the futile search for a bed, it was horribly crowded. Horribly. There were lots of large, pink people, and in the Beach Hotel bar, where everyone was gearing up for yet another grand final, you couldn't move for cleavage and burly would-be footie players.

At one stage I thought I couldn't even take any photographs any more, but I was being a bit silly. And then I saw her. An innocent, wearing the sort of skirt every little girl wants, and chasing seagulls, oblivious of any world but her own. And I thought, how wonderful, to be so young and have Byron literally at your feet. Then she stopped, contemplating, but too young to have even an inkling of what she wants to be.
Friends who were concerned when I reported my experience, and especially those who worship you also, suggested I return as soon as possible in order to move on. All I need is to feast upon this for a while.
I will always return. Until the point in time when I no longer can. Because way back, when I drove around the corner of Lawson Street the first time, and saw the sea and sky and perfectly sized fluffy bits of backlit cloud, and surfer dots, and Julian Rocks and The Pass, and the Lighthouse and the dolphins dancing, you stole pieces of my heart and soul that can never be returned. Moreover, I don't want them back. Those who do not feel the draw of a magical place are missing something. A warm inner smile, for one.

Hasta luego, Byron.

October 11, 2013

Swan Lake: birds at risk in Bris

An old friend came to stay a couple of months or so ago, and we spent several sun- and fun-filled hours in the Port of Brisbane. We both wanted photographs of containers, and there was plenty of scope in Australia's fastest-growing container port. There were stacks and stacks of coloured boxes: we were in our element.

While we were searching for the Visitors Centre and cafe, we came across a small lake by the roadside where there was an impressive variety of bird life. I returned a few days later with someone rather more bird inclined. As well as the usual suspects – pellies, black swans, ducks, cormorants, grebes – there were spoonbills and a duck we thought we'd only seen previously in Far North Queensland. What a joy to come upon so many birds in the midst of an industrial landscape.

Imagine my dismay when I learned that the Port of Brisbane is proposing to drain the lake and turn the area into a car park for imported vehicles awaiting distribution to dealers. There is already a huge area given over to this purpose, but no, the Port needs the relatively small ad-on of 'Swan Lake', so called because of its large number of shy black residents.

The lake was created during dredging for port expansion in 2000. In the Impact Assessment Study beforehand it was presented as an environmental benefit for the community as well as part of a storm water management system. Then in 2012 came a review of the Brisbane Port Land Use Plan 2010* 'with a view to making a small number of amendments designed to more flexibly accommodate customer demand and trade growth, particularly for the motor vehicle and project cargo industries'. There followed a Statement of Proposals (SOP) that included the land-use change to Swan Lake, now referred to by the Port as a 'retention pond'. Public submissions followed.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists and wildlife support groups are unhappy. They've formed an Alliance that includes the RSPCA, Queensland Conservation, Birds Queensland, Pelican and Seabird Rescue, Animal Liberation Queensland, Wildlife Queensland, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Bat Conservation & Rescue. They are inviting the people of Brisbane to join them for an Information Day and family picnic on Sunday 13 October from 10 till 4. There will be bird tours, stalls and entertainment at Port of Brisbane Lakeside, Curlew Crescent (rather appositely), at the Visitors Centre, where you will be able to park. For more details of this event, see https://www.facebook.com/saveswanlake.
Areas with such a concentration of birds are to be treasured and protected. Vast parks of imported cars are a blight. Storage methods need to be rethought: how about stacking**?

I have spent some hours over the last couple of days trying to determine where the decision-making process has got to with regard to Swan Lake's fate. The Port of Brisbane had to consult with or inform the Minister of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning; the Minister of Transport and Main Roads; senior officers in the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection; senior officers in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; and the Lord Mayor of Brisbane City Council. I was told by the office of Neil Symes, Member of the Queensland State Parliament for Lytton, that this is not a straightforward process, which I do not doubt.

As of this morning, I have an answer from the Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, who manage the proposal processing and make the ultimate decision together with the Department of Transport and Main Roads. At the moment, they are waiting to hear what Brisbane City Council's Planning and Development Assessment committee has to say. The chairperson's office have confirmed they are finalising their comments and will be sending them to the Port of Brisbane shortly. I believe BCC have concerns about the loss of the Lake in the Port from the point of view of biodiversity.

My interest here, apart from the conservation of a small bit of bird paradise, is the fact that this lake on the former Fisherman's Island was initially seen as a 'benefit' of industrial development; not an 'offset' as we know it but of great relevance to the biodiversity offsetting debate. This man-made lake was originally put forward by the Port of Brisbane as an environmental sweetener. Now they're proposing to take the sweets away from us, they can't be surprised if we throw our toys out of the pram. And is this a foretaste of things to come, in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland, for example, where rich mining companies promise as yet unproven, or even identified, offsets for unique remnant ecosystems to be swallowed up by mega mines?

As the Queensland governmental departments come to their conclusions about Swan Lake, they're going to have to tread carefully, bearing in mind the importance of the offsetting issue in resource development projects – and court cases pending – all over this state.

Readers of this blog will know that I don't rate biodiversity offsetting. I see no proof of its success yet in conserving valuable ecosystems destroyed by mining or dredging or construction or whatever. Where are the research findings to back up promises in Environmental Impact Statements? Who monitors the monitoring of offsets in order to independently evaluate their success and their compliance with the conditions of approval?

The Port of Brisbane points to a recently constructed bird roost just down the road from Swan Lake. But the Lake is fresh water and the roost is saline, which makes a difference to some bird species. Neither is the roost site freely accessible to the public. You have to collect a key from the Visitors Centre, and you can only do that during office hours. I didn't find the place terribly appealing (below), and the Centre was closed on the public holiday when I went. I felt like a prisoner as I peered through the fence.

The Port of Brisbane has signed a deal with Landcare† to 'offset' the loss of the lake with four projects over five years to the value of more than $250,000. These include a weed-cleanup, revegetation and landscaping in the local area. It remains to be seen if these are comparable with Swan Lake?
If you'd like to know more, and see the birds enjoying this waterhole while they can, come along on Sunday. It's not too late to let Brisbane City Council and the relevant state government departments know what you think.
* a prerequisite of the privatisation of the Port of Brisbane under the terms of a 99-year lease from the Queensland government

October 8, 2013

Out of the Outback: Longreach to Carnarvon Gorge

I was keen to put a big town behind us. Leaving Longreach, however, meant we'd soon no longer be in the Outback, rather the next phase of our journey. East equals civilisation, and my feelings were mixed. When we left it was 7am, 4 degrees C, and we still didn't know how to make sure our vehicle was weed seed free on leaving an Outback town. Onward.

The route to Carnarvon Gorge had been a matter of debate. The easiest, and quickest way seemed to be to take the Landsborough Highway to Barcaldine, and then the Capricorn Highway almost due east, via Alpha, to Emerald, then south. Weeks ago I'd had a plan to visit Bimblebox, northwest of Alpha, but I soon realised I didn't have sufficient time for a detour or a look around the Nature Refuge. I need to pay them a longer visit and be of some use while I'm there.

My friend was keen to steer well clear of main roads: we'd developed a taste for driving alone. Extensive, tedious roadworks between Longreach and Barcaldine would have been enough to make anyone head south where the Landsborough right-angles. But not till we'd picked up a coffee. Although we were still on the Highway, there was much less traffic, and no roos, alive or dead. When you haven't seen any for a while, but you feel you should have, dead tree stumps, low-lying shrubs and ant hills all start to resemble kangaroos. The landscape looked like this. Wet Rocky Creek was just as dry as Dry Rocky Creek.
Somewhere we had to turn off left, heading for an almost non-existent place called Evora. In this part of the world the names on maps don't belong to settlements but just a single property or station. We tried to cut a corner off by turning just south of Mellew, but ended up, after going so far along a narrow, barely-there track through paddocks, in front of a locked gate and a 'Private' sign. Back to the Landsborough for another few kilometres. The 'road' to Evora was represented on the map by longer dashes so we were more hopeful. 

We were not to pass another car for several hours.

Paddocks gave way to woodland, creeks and sandy soils. Dismal Creek wasn't at all: it was most pleasant and dappled, but dry, of course. We stoppped for a breakfast bite; a pull-off area wasn't necessary.
At Yalleroi the track passed through someone's backyard. There were barking dogs in cages and one or two random cows, but no humans: I felt slightly uneasy. We were supposed to cross the Blackall-Jericho Road at this point, but if we did, it wasn't obvious. Dismal Creek turned out to have many tributary channels, but not a drop in any of them. The trees were taller by now and there was a greater variety. To the right there was no undergrowth or lower branches and cattle were scattered about: to the left there was grass, low-growing shrubs and no cows; but seemingly nothing to stop them crossing the road. Curious. A property named Neverfail lent its name to the track: in this land of tell-it-like-it-is names, we drove on confidently. And imagine our excitement when we actually came to a junction – with a signpost! This was the Alpha-Tambo Road, and red on the map, no less, though still dashed.
The road was sealed in stretches, but 26 kilometres south of the junction, just before Killarney Park, we had to turn east again, joining the Dawson Developmental Road. We could see a ridge in the far-off distance. Was this our first glimpse of the westernmost Carnarvon ranges?
From the turn-off it was 246 kilometres to Springsure, and then another 174 to our destination. Off road, you often feel as if you're making good progress but turns out you've barely moved on the map. Stretches of the Dawson Developmental Road were fast, but others, especially nearer Springsure, were rutted. As ever, there were interesting things along the way, not least the signs.
We were no longer in the Outback, but don't ask me at what point we ceased to be so. This is a subject to which I will have to return. The area felt very remote: by early afternoon we hadn't seen a car for three and three-quarter hours, the longest period of our trip. Castlevale's status made me cross, momentarily, despite my beautiful surroundings on a now perfect day weatherwise. It reminded me that nature refuges are clearly not protected – from mining companies at any rate – otherwise we wouldn't be fighting for the future of Bimblebox, would we?

The further east we drove, the more dramatic became the sandstone cliff-edge to our right. We concluded it must be the northern edge of Carnarvon National Park.
We were in bottle tree county, and came upon the largest we'd ever seen. It was spectacular: see car for scale (below). We saw it at 13.20 on 19 June 2013, 3409 kilometres into our Outback journey: my friend wished to record it thus in the trip notebook.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in the Bay of Biscay Swamp. It was a bit ordinary, almost hot and there were more than a few flies. But more bottle trees, and more impressive names, including Semper Idem, Latin for 'always the same'. I love mountains named after abstract concepts.
There was still a long way to go. We'd been advised to reach Carnarvon Gorge before nightfall, so we couldn't hang about. Fortunately, about 40 kilometres short of Springsure the road was sealed so we could speed up. We would have driven down the Gregory Highway from Emerald to Springsure had we taken the more obvious route from Longreach. Coming our way, Springsure is where the Dawson Developmental Road graduates to become the Dawson Highway.

It was 70 kilometres to Rolleston, where we had to fill up with diesel and let the Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge know whether we were going to make it in time for dinner. It was 41 kilometres down the Carnarvon Developmental Road to the turning for the National Park, and then a further 43, half of which were unsealed. We were cutting it fine, for both light and food. 

As we got nearer, a fine day was bowing out with a wonderful sunset over towering cliffs at the entrance to the Gorge. There was no time to stop, although I was later to bemoan the fact I'd missed it photographically.

We'd been 11 hours on the road. Our pre-dinner beer was as welcome as the thought of two days out of the car walking some fine scenery.

October 5, 2013

So long, koalas

Have you ever known anyone not respond positively to a koala? Smiling or laughing or aahing, reaching for the camera? All visitors want to see koalas, without exception. Along with roos, koalas are the essence of Australia to the rest of the world.

September was Save the Koala month. You may not have known; I didn't. I didn't know until I read about the Queensland government sacking its only two specialist koala ecologists. For the first time since 1971, according to the Courier Mail, there isn't a dedicated koala ecologist in the Department of the Environment (and Heritage Protection). Great timing, boys.

Minister Andrew Powell assures us the ecologists' work will go on. And over the next four years $22.5 million will be spent on 'Koala habitat acquisition" and $800,000 on 'koala rescue and rehabilitation grants', which is not much. What precisely does 'habitat acquisition' mean? That koala habitat will be protected from the developers in perpetuity? Trees won't be cleared for yet more houses in the Gold Coast hinterland? Don't, absolutely don't, mention translocation to me (see 'Koalas declared extinct in Australia", August 2012).

This week also saw the release of research by the University of Sydney that indicates koalas will be severely impacted by heatwaves following further climate change. The study tracked 40 koalas over three years in northwest New South Wales and found that they used certain eucalypt species for feeding at night and then moved to a more shade-giving variety during the heat of the day. The composition of eucalypt woodland has been found to change with increasing temperatures: a quarter of the koalas tracked in this study perished during a heatwave in 2009. The suggestion by the researchers is that the supply of suitable trees will need to be managed in order to ensure the survival of koalas. This as well as preventing the loss of habitat area and protecting koalas from the attendant risks of development such as dogs and traffic.

Save the Koala Month is an annual fundraising and awareness campaign by the Australian Koala Foundation. You can help them plant trees: go to https://www.savethekoala.com/plant-a-tree/plant-form. I don't think we can rely on the Queensland government, do you?

* Climate-mediated habitat selection in an arboreal folivore by Mathew S Crowther et al. To read the abstract, go to http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0587.2013.00413.x/abstract

October 4, 2013

Climate's star witness

Earth's changing climate has had a high profile during the last week or so. I've never seen so much press coverage, following the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report. The BBC in the UK continued with its outmoded practice of giving equal time to warmists and contrarians. I'm glad my taxes are no longer funding this idiocy. We pay taxes here, however, where the new government is in denial of incontrovertible evidence.

The overwhelming conclusion drawn from the Report is that, to stop temperatures rising above the two-degree target that seeks to curb climate change, most known reserves of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. Read the IPCC's own headline statements at http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/docs/ar5/ar5_wg1_headlines.pdf

In the Land Court in Brisbane, climate change had its moment, too. And what better proponent could it have had? David Karoly is Professor of Meteorology in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne. He is a climate change expert and contributed to the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report in 2007. Professor Karoly researches climate variability and climate change, including greenhouse climate change, ozone depletion in the stratosphere and climate variations resulting from the El Niño Southern Oscillation. He has recently studied the effects of climate change on weather extremes and how they impact human and natural systems.

Professor Karoly is articulate, meticulous and assured about his research, conclusions and published assessments of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and the global warming response. When questioned by Alpha Coal's slick lawyer, he dealt deftly with being described as a 'vehement opponent of the expansion of the coal industry in Australia'; with his report (as an independent expert witness) being called a 'literary review', when in fact he was an author, contributor or reviewer of much of the material cited; when defending his statement that it was, and is, appropriate to consider a high-emission scenario for future climate change*; and when justifying his assessment that the Alpha coal mine would be a significant partial contributor to the future impacts of climate change in Queensland**. When it was suggested by the applicant in the case (Hancock Coal) that, because there is a substantial range of estimates, assumptions, calculations, results and models in calculating a carbon budget, the science of carbon budgets was 'far from certain', Professor Karoly declared that the relationship between cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and temperature responses was a 'high confidence' relationship based on much evidence.

I wish that Professor Karoly could pop up every time a climate-change sceptic denies the scientific consensus about our warming world. He speaks with such authority and certainty of his claims that I would defy anyone to contradict his figures.

Emissions scenarios necessarily involve a range of difficult estimates and assumptions: the response of the climate to increased emissions; feedbacks in the carbon cycle; uncertainties about the impact of other pollutants in the atmosphere; and whether or not climate policy is implemented. Within modelling there are many possible futures with different greenhouse gas emission scenarios.

The role of climate policy in Australia is an even bigger unknown than it was a short while ago. There is still a commitment to a five per cent reduction (from 2000) in emissions by 2020: the current government has the same target as the previous one, only now there is a cap on expenditure in order to achieve that target. LNP environment policy is extremely vague at best: it includes 'green armies', tree planting and putting carbon back in soil, but none of these measures is up to the enormity of reducing Australia's huge emissions.

And I have low confidence that Tony Abbott will consult Australia's eminent climate scientists.

* based on recently observed emissions of greenhouse gases that have followed the highest, or above the highest, emissions scenario used by the IPCC
** based on the 600 billion tonnes of the remaining carbon emissions 'budgeted' so as not to exceed the globally agreed 2-degree warming