Thursday, April 28, 2016

Marine bioluminescence reveals how bacteria talk

Brilliant TED Talk by Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria communicate. You will never think about bacteria in the same way again.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Dredging, what's it all about?

If you need to get around the big country of Australia you need some sort of infrastructure. We have roads that crisscross the continent that emanate from the country towns and interstate to the cities from the cities and ports to overseas destinations. 

On the land the transport is usually by train or by road. On the sea transport uses port channels to pick up and move goods and people. 

Whether they are made from sand, dirt, rubble, asphalt or metal these connecting pathways need to first be built and then maintained. In both sorts, land and sea, there is a major change to the landscape and the environment. The most dramatic change is at the start of new projects however they must also be progressively maintained with subsequent collateral impacts. 

Rail and roads plow through forests and cut through mountain passes disrupting wildlife corridors. Although hats are off to the few states that build the occasional wildlife bridge over or underpass. 

We don't seem to pay a great deal of attention to what is being transported on land eg. logs, minerals, gas or crops, unless they cause traffic congestion for other users. However we all care about our beautiful land and sea and need to be more aware of how big changes to our landscape can have a rolling effect, including dredging.

With the current low environmental effect of shipping (2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions) including the statistically low numbers of infrequent but distressing events like oil spills and new port infrastructure, dredging is largely merely a maintenance issue.

Ports Australia give insights in two reports that should be taken into account within any dredging debate:

2. Temperate ports 

Largely overlooked in the dredging debate is that new ports are built as a result of demand for goods. New ports are built closest to their market place. The big question, in respect of dredging, may relate to whether the products being imported or exported are justified in a triple bottom line context (environment/social/economic balance).

For instance Australia exports non-renewable fossil fuels by sea. Do we have other export choices that may not require new ports near vulnerable sea areas. The real cost of energy article (relying on renewable energy or non-renewable) by Huffpost can be viewed as an information resource here.

Through all of these reports and debate one primary underlying question remains...does the environment hold an equal weight in the triple bottom line equation?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What agreement oversights pollution over the entire ocean?

Wikipedia says:
"The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty, is the international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which took place between 1973 and 1982. The Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world's oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. The Convention, concluded in 1982, replaced four 1958 treaties. UNCLOS came into force in 1994, a year after Guyana became the 60th nation to sign the treaty.[1] As of January 2015, 166 countries and the European Union have joined in the Convention."
That's a lot of territory! We'd like to focus on the marine environment for a moment. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), in consideration of a major industry on the sea:

"Shipping – which transports about 90% of global trade – is, statistically, the least environmentally damaging mode of transport. Moreover, set against land-based industry, shipping is, overall, a comparatively minor contributor to marine pollution from human activities." 
see more here

They further advise that there are 51 treaty agreements for shipping here and 21 relate to the environment.

The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) is IMO's senior technical body on marine pollution related matters for instance the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) in 1973.  

MARPOL has been instrumental in reducing the number of oil spills and a wider range of measures to prevent marine pollution including pollution from chemicals, other harmful substances, garbage, sewage and air pollution and emissions from ships.

Compliance on an international scale relies on all countries working together to ensure standards are met. There is some debate about compliance here and also thoughts about how to mitigate increased shipping emissions for the future here .

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fruits and flowers under the sea

Surely plants with fruits and flowers live only on the land! Not so. A variety of true plants live in the coastal waters girting the Australian continent. Not that you may have noticed them.

Hang on, you might have noticed in a 'white noise' kind of a way. Have you ever turned up to a shore worthy of a boat launch and seen piles of strappy sea wrack mounds on the beach? Or have you noticed, when you see a beautiful the clear blue coastal water the darker shadowy patches breaking up your view of the sandy bottom? These darker blue-green patches are not the colourful coral reefs or the beautiful sponge gardens featured in many documentaries or tourism promotions. You are looking at the modest yet amazing seagrass meadows of Australia.
"Moreton Bay Seagrasses" brochure by UTC

Australia is the home to 30 of the 57 species worldwide. They are not grasses but terrestrial plants from the same line as lillies who have returned to live in the sea the same way that marine mammals did. Unlike the macro or micro algaes (seaweeds) they have flowers and fruits and roots too. The health of our coastal waters and the changing atmosphere are tied to these dynamic meadows.

Seagrasses have been a resource on the land as well as off. Historically we know that seagrass wrack was commonly used as insulation and sound proofing in early dwellings and it is non-flammable due to high silicon content. It has been used as thatching for roofs, binding soil, stuffing and packaging as well as weaving, fibre products and paper making.

Seagrasses of South Australia brochure, Environment Protection Agency, SA

And we know that fish and other animals use the seagrass as nurseries and hunting areas in the end ensuring food for fish, dugong, turtles, swans and us too! 

Most importantly these marine plants have a key part to play in mitigating rising CO2 in the climate change puzzle. 

The CSIRO Coastal Carbon Cluster website tells us that "Wetland vegetation (seagrass, mangroves, saltmarsh) occupy only two per cent of the world's seabed area, but are responsible for 50 per cent of the carbon transfer to the ocean sediments."

Seagrass meadows have proven to be strong carbon (Blue Carbon) sinks "with a hectare of the most effective seagrass meadows exeeding by tenfold the CO2 sink capacity of the pristine Amazonian forest" (taken from "Seagrass and the carbon paradox" by Carlos Duarte here)

Go seagrasses! 

Students wishing to take up a seagrass art/craft activity can visit the AUSMEPA Kids Investigating Sea Solutions (KISS) at