Unpacking the history of how Earth feeds life, and life changes Earth

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Anthony Dosseto, Associate Professor, University of Wollongong

At a fleeting glance, the study of life – biology – seems very separate from that of rocks, or geology.

But a look back through history shows that geological processes have been key to the evolution of life on Earth. Geology has shaped biology by creating favourable conditions, and indeed the basic “ingredients”, for life’s emergence and evolution.

And now there is growing evidence that this also works in reverse: life has shaped our planet’s atmosphere, oceans and landscapes in many ways.

Let’s take a walk back through time.

Read more: When Thailand and Australia were closer neighbours, tectonically speaking

Our planet is a living organism

Early in the 20th century, Russian scientists posited that living organisms shape their environment in a way that allows life to be sustained. In the 1970s, a similar idea known as the “Gaia hypothesis” emerged in the Western world, thanks to scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis.

Life started shaping the planet as soon as it appeared, possibly as early as 3.7 billion years ago. Back then radiations from the Sun were not as strong as today and without a little help, the whole planet should have remained frozen.

That little help may have come from bacteria producing the heat-trapping gas methane, with significant amounts of this greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere.

Much later – some 200 million years ago – a similar relationship happened in reverse. At this time, more complex lifeforms may have prevented a runaway build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as seen on Venus) by trapping CO₂ in the skeleton of marine organisms like plankton. These then later became buried at the bottom of oceans to form limestones.

If it wasn’t for plankton, Earth (right) could have looked much like Venus (left). Wikimedia commons

We are made of star dust

The chemical elements that compose our body were made in the explosion of a star – we are made of star dust! We share the origin of our atoms with everything around us, including rocks.

But forces deep within planet Earth also shape life.

Weathering of mountains, and continents in general, also delivers essential nutrients to marine lifeforms. One example is phosphorus, which is released into rivers and oceans by weathering of the mineral apatite found in continental rocks. Phosphorus is also a building element of DNA molecules, and of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the “rechargeable battery” responsible for energy transfers in our cells.

Read more: How Eurasia’s Tianshan mountains set a stage that changed the world

The first widespread emergence of continents could have been key to the first oxidation of the atmosphere (called the Great Oxidation Event, about 2.4 billion years ago). By providing essential nutrients like phosphorus, weathering of the first continents would have allowed photosynthetic cyanobacteria that make up stromatolites to thrive and release oxygen into the atmosphere.

Stromatolites from Shark Bay, Western Australia. The ancestors of these living colonies of cyanobacteria played a big role in shaping early Earth’s atmosphere. Wikimedia commons

The big beast needs the little one

In 2018 we learned that at the start of the Jurassic Period (about 200 million years ago), plankton began to mineralise at greater ocean depths. Plankton produces oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis – and so, as a result, oxygen began to accumulate in the shallow oceans and reach its present level in the atmosphere.

The increase in atmospheric oxygen to modern levels would have allowed larger organisms to flourish (including the dinosaurs), because they have higher requirements for this element.

So not only is plankton a key piece of the ecological puzzle – because so many marine lifeforms depend on it – but it also gave the right conditions for the evolution of large marine reptiles.

Aristonectes (meaning ‘best swimmer’) is an extinct genus of plesiosaur, perhaps one of the many marine reptiles thankful for the role of plankton on ocean oxygenation. Wikimedia commons

Read more: A map that fills a 500-million year gap in Earth’s history

Closing the loop

So the next question is naturally: what allowed plankton to mineralise differently during the Jurassic Period? Perhaps moving tectonic plates.

Between about 300 and 175 million years ago, continental plates were clustered into the supercontinent called Pangea. Plate reconstructions show that large parts of this supercontinent drifted through the tropics between about 250 and 200 million years ago.

As a result, continents experienced more abundant rainfall and rocks weathered more extensively, releasing to the oceans the elements necessary for plankton to build a calcium carbonate skeleton.

Global plate reconstruction between 330 and 150 million years ago, showing the distribution of major ocean basins and continental plates at 1 million year intervals. An approximation for the extent of the continents is shaded brown, and present-day coastlines are shaded green. Black lines with triangles indicate subduction zones, and black lines denote mid-ocean ridges and transform faults. The tropics, between 23.45 N and 23.45 S, are highlighted by the red band.

These processes close the loop between biology and geology. Tectonic plates moving into the tropics resulted in large supply of elements, allowing for the emergence of calcareous plankton, and this plankton in turn was responsible for the last major rise in atmospheric oxygen.

Read more: Curious Kids: How was the ocean formed? Where did all the water come from?

Humans are increasingly aware that they have shaped the planet to an unprecedented extent due to the emission of greenhouse gases linked to the Industrial Revolution, 200 years ago, and to the advent of the Agricultural Revolution some 8,000 years ago.

Cyanobacteria, vascular plants and plankton have also modified the whole chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere well before humankind, over much longer time scales.

However, there are striking differences between Homo sapiens on the one hand, and plankton and plants on the other. Humans are shaping the planet in a way that may eventually send the species itself into oblivion (and many others with them).

Our species is most likely the first to have the abilities to recognise and mitigate its impact on the environment on which it depends.

ref. Unpacking the history of how Earth feeds life, and life changes Earth – http://theconversation.com/unpacking-the-history-of-how-earth-feeds-life-and-life-changes-earth-103162

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Curious Kids: why are people colour blind?

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Paul Martin, Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology & Eye Health, Central Clinical School, Save Sight Institute, University of Sydney

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

My name is Abhilasa. I am 10 years old and I live in Melbourne. My question is: Why are people colour blind? – Abhilasa, age 10, Melbourne.

Hi Abhilasa. Thank you for your great question.

Let’s say you have three tubs of paint: blue, green and red. You have a paintbrush and a piece of paper. You can use the three paints to make lots of different things. A green tree, a blue car, or a red apple. And if you want to paint a purple shirt, you can mix red and blue paint to make purple.

How do we see those different colours? In your eye you have special kinds of cells that pick up the light rays bouncing off each splotch of paint. These cells are called cone cells.

In the microscope, they look like ice-cream cones. But they are much smaller. The cone cells help you see the different colours.

Read more: Curious Kids: How do moths eat our clothes?

There are three kinds of cone cell in most people’s eyes. They are called long wave cones, medium wave cones, and short wave cones, because they pick up different kinds of light waves (or rays).

The cone cells tell the brain how much of each type of light wave is bouncing off each splotch of paint.

Your brain puts those messages back together again.

So let’s say you mix red and blue paint to make a purple splotch. Lots of long and short wave light will bounce off that splotch, but not much medium wave light will (the reason this happens is hard to explain, but you just have to trust me that this is how light works). Then the long and short cones in your eyes get activated, and will send their message to the brain. The brain interprets the message and voilà! The splotch will look purple to you.

Colour blind people can still can see colours, but not as many as most people do. That’s because the cone cells in their eyes may be different.

There are three kinds of cone cells in most people’s eyes. Shutterstock

Some colour blind people only have two kinds of cone cell in their eye. Others have three kinds, but the cones do not pick up the same light waves as the cone cells in most people’s eyes do. So their brain does not get three different messages like most people’s brains do.

Being colour blind is a bit like what would happen if I took away one of your tubs of paint, so you only have two tubs. You could still make some different-coloured splotches, but not as many as when you had three tubs. That would not be so much fun. Being colour blind is sometimes not much fun either. Some kids laugh in school when colour blind kids get their coloured pencils mixed up. That’s mean.

But being colour blind can be good, too. Colour blind people are really good at spotting things that are far away, and they are better than most people at telling things apart by their shape.

Read more: Curious Kids: What plants could grow in the Goldilocks zone of space?

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

* Email your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au
* Tell us on Twitter


Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.

ref. Curious Kids: why are people colour blind? – http://theconversation.com/curious-kids-why-are-people-colour-blind-107599

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Dramatic advances in forensics expose the need for genetic data legislation

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Caitlin Curtis, Research fellow, Centre for Policy Futures (Genomics), The University of Queensland

Many people first became familiar with DNA testing through its use in the OJ Simpson murder trial in 1994. Now, 24 years later, there have been two dramatic advances in the capability of forensic genetics that mark the start of a new era.

The first is the amount of information we can predict about a person from DNA found at a crime scene, and the second is the way police can use open genealogy databases to identify people.

But we need to be careful how we use these new tools. If people lose trust in how DNA data is used and shared by police, it could have an adverse impact on other applications – such as medical care.

That’s why we’re calling for a Genetic Data Protection Act to ensure people have confidence in the way their DNA is accessed and used.

Read more: DNA facial prediction could make protecting your privacy more difficult

We can learn a lot more from DNA now

Predicting traits from DNA, known as “DNA phenotyping”, is improving. Facial prediction, health traits, predisposition to disease, even personality traits and things about our mental health can be predicted from genetic data. Some researchers are even considering predicting propensity to drink or smoke.

We’re getting better at predicting physical traits, like faces, from DNA data. Composite from PNAS

Law enforcement agencies around the world are using these traits to create predictive DNA “mugshots”, but in many countries there is no specific regulation on how and when they should be incorporated into policing.

And some types of predictions raise considerable ethical issues.

For example, should it be OK for law enforcement to predict the mental health or disease risk of a suspect? If so, should that information be used in a trial? If law enforcement predicts a high risk of a particular disease, should they be compelled to tell a suspect or their family?

Separation between databases is breaking down

You may be familiar with “CODIS” from CSI, this is the database that law enforcement has traditionally used to identify DNA collected at a crime scene. CODIS has around 17.7 million DNA profiles. There are strict rules around who can be included in these databases, and the vast majority of profiles are from convicted offenders.

According to best estimates, the number of people who have taken genetic ancestry tests is slightly higher than this, and police have started using this data as well. The type of data in CODIS only allows close family matches, but the type of data in open ancestry databases allows much deeper relations to be found.

Even if you haven’t participated in genetic testing or made your genetic data public, you may have a relative who has. Currently, law enforcement is able to identify people based on matches as distant as third cousins.

On average, people have around 190 third cousins. One estimate indicates that over 90% of Americans of European descent already have a third cousin or higher in the open genealogy database GEDmatch. It may take as little as 2% of the population uploading their DNA data in a genealogy database for the entire population to be identified this way.

The 238 relatives in your generation that might be affected if you share your genetic data. image designed by James Hereward and Caitlin Curtis

New statistical methods mean separations between previously distinct genetic databases are disappearing. Traditional forensic markers can now be cross referenced to ancestry data, even though they are completely different types of genetic data. This means close family members could be identified across different databases. These methods can also be used to re-identify subjects in medical genetics research projects.

There has been a lot of public support for the use of genetic genealogy to catch serial killers and rapists. In some cases, people are voluntarily uploading their data to help these efforts.

But where should we draw the line? Should genetic data only be used in serious crimes, or are we happy to have a comprehensive system of genetic surveillance that covers the entire population?

Private companies are aiding law enforcement

Both DNA phenotyping and forensic genealogy – which relies on amateur genealogists – are now being offered to law enforcement by private companies.

Parabon, a US-based pharmaceutical company, has partnered with armchair genealogist Cece Moore. She started using genetic genealogy to find the parents of adoptees and children born through sperm donation, but now uses it to catch criminals.

Parabon also offers facial prediction services. While the science of facial prediction from DNA is getting better, it is still contentious, and several prominent scientists have cast doubt on whether Parabon can really do what it is promising.

Nevertheless, this move out of government labs and into private ones raises questions about oversight – and what exactly is happening to the data generated.

Genetic data is different from other kinds of data

Genetic data is highly unique and can be thought of as a personal 15 million letter pin-code. Since the code doesn’t just identify us, it also contains important information about our disease risk, personality traits and even our physical features like our face, it is very difficult to keep anonymous.

Genetic data is different from other kinds of data. Edited from Shutterstock image

Unlike a credit card we can’t request a new genome if our data is compromised. And a stolen credit card won’t tell a perpetrator anything about the finances of our family members.

We understand what happens if we lose a credit card, but our understanding of genetic data is still developing. And we’re likely to see it put to unexpected uses in the future.

Read more: It’s time to talk about who can access your digital genomic data

We need a ‘Genetic Data Protection Act’

Technological advances in genomics are outpacing public awareness, and existing legislation doesn’t fit genetic data well. Under current laws, the lab that produces the genetic data has ownership of the record. But if our genetic data represents a deep part of the essence of us, it shouldn’t be this easy for us to give up ownership of it.

We need new ways to protect genetic data to maintain trust in medical genomics. Sometimes people need their genome sequenced for medical purposes, but they might be reluctant to consent if trust has broken down around how genetic data could be used. That could result in poorer medical outcomes.

One solution to prevent this is a specific “Genetic Data Protection Act”, which would grant people ownership of their own data. However, it must be different from standard property rights: ownership should be immutable and nontransferable.

The issues around use of our genetic data are complex, individuals (and their descendants) must be protected. Under no circumstances should it be possible for an individual to unwittingly sign an agreement that results in a loss of control of their genetic data. Legislation is part of the solution, but education and new technological solutions will also be important.

The recent introduction of the digital My Health Record shows thatAustralians care about who is accessing their sensitive information. And people are already expressing unease about the confidentiality of their genetic data.

We must establish clear boundaries about how genetic data generated for medical purposes is used – whether by police or by any other interested parties. Giving genetic data the protection it needs, and making sure that medical genetic data doesn’t become a forensic resource will be crucial to ensure public trust in medical genetics.

ref. Dramatic advances in forensics expose the need for genetic data legislation – http://theconversation.com/dramatic-advances-in-forensics-expose-the-need-for-genetic-data-legislation-105397

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crime could improve how police and communities respond

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Andy Kaladelfos, Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Sciences, UNSW

Lessons learnt from a NSW parliamentary inquiry into hate crimes against Australia’s LGBTIQ community could change the way police and communities respond to complaints, and acknowledge the continued impact of past injustices.

The inquiry is the first of its kind in Australia to investigate both the scale of hate crimes against the LGBTIQ community and inadequate police responses. It was held because a growing body of research and community-driven activism pointed out the toll violence had taken, and continues to take, on LGBTIQ Australians.

Hearings into the handling of past hate crimes (between 1970 and 2010) concluded last month, with the inquiry due to report in 2019.

As well as the handling of these past cases, the inquiry is investigating matters including the impact of the now defunct “gay panic” defence. This provided an alleged “homosexual advance” was a partial defence to murder; South Australia is now the only state to maintain this defence.

This broad remit could lead to far-reaching and significant recommendations that acknowledge the problematic past policing of LGBTIQ communities. A consideration of responses to past violence against LGBTIQ people will provide a basic level of acknowledgement of past harms. It will also clarify the legacies of those experiences in relationships with police today.

Read more: Trans, transgender, cisgender: we are what we name ourselves

Experiences of violence

The NSW inquiry defines hate crimes as LGBTIQ-related murder, physical and verbal violence, or institutional violence.

Contemporary surveys of Australian LGBTIQ people show unacceptably high rates of violent victimisation, with reports at alarming levels for transgender people.

The largest Australian study found 72% of LGBTIQ people had experienced verbal abuse, 41% threats of physical violence and 23% physical assault.

For transgender participants, 92% of trans women and 55% of trans men had experienced verbal abuse; 46% of trans women and 36% of trans men had experienced physical assault.

Read more: Despite recent victories, plights of many LGBT people remain ignored

Historic hate crimes

The most well-known hate crime is the case of 27-year-old Scott Johnson, an American PhD student whose body was found naked at the bottom of North Head in Manly, Sydney, in 1988.

After 30 years of waiting and three coronial inquests, Johnson’s death, originally deemed a suicide, was finally recognised as a gay hate crime. The coroner found that Johnson was either pushed off the cliff or died trying to escape attackers.

NSW police have now offered a one million dollar reward for clues leading to the resolution of this cold case.

This year, the report In Pursuit of Truth and Justice, by health organisation ACON, drew together decades of research and community advocacy in investigating 88 historical hate crimes in NSW.

Like Johnson’s case, many of these crimes had been written off as accidental deaths or suicides. Months later, NSW police released the final report of Strike Force Parrabell, the internal investigation of police handling of these cases. Controversially, this reduced the number of deaths deemed hate crimes (it used different criteria).

Due to a history of problematic policing, the most effective means of obtaining a fuller picture of the past scale of hate crimes against the LGBTIQ community would be to call a Royal Commission, which would have the powers to conduct a full and independent investigation.

Policing homosexual offences

The police approach to LGBTIQ hate crimes is rooted in the historic criminalisation of male homosexual behaviours.

In the 1950s, as public awareness of homosexuality increased, NSW police intensified their policing of male homosexuality, especially at public meeting places and beats.

Then Police Commissioner Colin Delaney described homosexuality as:

Australia’s greatest menace

and a

cancer in the community.

Delaney ramped up the use of the vice squad to target homosexuals, with tactics that were often alleged to include entrapment, falsifications of statements, blackmail and threats of violence.

It was not until 1984 that sex between males in NSW was decriminalised.


But decriminalisation did not immediately shift perceptions of all police officers or members of the public. Many people continued to be victims of homophobic and transphobic violence, and reporting offences brought stigma and vilification.

The establishment of the community reporting mechanism the Lesbian and Gay Anti-Violence Project in the 1990s was one way that advocacy groups tried to tackle distrust of police and the ongoing threat of violence. This project provided a safe place for gay and lesbian people to report offences and have them recorded without fear of encountering homophobia.

Since decriminalisation, NSW police have worked to re-build relationships with LGBTIQ communities through outreach programs, community visibility and participation, and the creation of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officer program.

Trust in police

Yet, continued distrust of police in LGBTIQ communities shows the long-standing effects of past practices and injustices, and their ongoing impact.

National research shows LGBTIQ people are reluctant to report offences to police. Earlier negative experiences often influence perceptions of how officers might treat their complaint.

Most worryingly, Victorian research shows young LGBTIQ people are the least likely to report offences to police. More than half would not report a hate crime, fearing a homophobic or transphobic response. More said they would report to a LGBTI Liaison Officer.

Achieving justice

The Australian community needs to work towards social and cultural change that will reduce violence against LGBTIQ people. Policing is an important part of this change.

The road ahead for achieving justice involves looking back to recognise and redress past wrongs and looking forward to create systems of safe reporting that work for marginalised communities.

One type of response in improving contemporary policing is unlikely to work for all, given the diversity of LGBTIQ communities. A variety of responses might focus on improving access to formal systems, including strengthening and better resourcing LGBTI police liaison programs to develop trust between police and LGBTIQ communities. It would also be helpful to implement third-party reporting mechanisms through which victims could report crimes in safe spaces, such as community organisations, instead of to police.

However, many people may prefer mechanisms for redress that do not involve the formal criminal justice system, such as restorative and transformative justice. These approaches are a process of victim and community restitution that involves perpetrators taking responsibility for their actions, recognising the harms done by violence, and changing their attitudes.

Finally, we need to aim for active interventions, including educational initiatives aimed at both the police and the broader public, that reduce the occurrence of homophobic and transphobic violence.

Ultimately, transforming the broader conditions that underpin and propel this violence will be the most significant way to achieve justice.

ref. Inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crime could improve how police and communities respond – http://theconversation.com/inquiry-into-lgbtiq-hate-crime-could-improve-how-police-and-communities-respond-108493

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Not a season to be jolly: how to deal with dying during the holidays

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Karen Anderson, Practitioner Scholar, Edith Cowan University

Dying doesn’t disappear at Christmas. For those who know death will come soon but don’t know exactly when, the festive season, when the air is thick with “joy”, can be particularly unsettling.

As a psychotherapist working in palliative care, I often see distressed patients in the lead up to Christmas. Patients can find decorations and carols being played in shopping centres particularly triggering, reminding them this may be their last Christmas.

The dying person may often face an inner struggle. They may want to be involved in activities but may not have the physical and emotional capacity to deal with the heightened stress and stimulation. Some may prefer to sit quietly and watch proceedings without necessarily being amongst the action, but still feeling like they are a part of things.

Regardless of the the type of life-threatening illness, and whether an infant, child, adolescent, young, middle or older aged person is dying, both the patient and their family members may experience deep distress. You may feel the impending death, and your family the anticipated loss. These gloomy or morbid feelings might clash with the celebrations of Christmas.

Read more: Palliative care for children often involves treating the whole family

Whether it’s you or a loved one facing dying at this time of year, there are some practical tips available that draw from a wealth of research and experience.

If you are the one dying

Where possible, plan ahead how you want to spend your Christmas festive period so you don’t place additional pressure on yourself. Think about the most comfortable arrangements for you. Where and with whom do you want to spend Christmas Day? Which is the best time of day for you to manage different activities? Let people close to you know your thoughts.

The process of dying is unique to each individual. It may be quick or slow, spread over weeks or days. Palliative care specialist at Stanford University, Dr James Hallenbeck wrote:

For those who do die gradually, there’s often a final, rapid slide that happens in roughly the last few days of life — a phase known as ‘active dying’. A person may begin to lose their senses and desires. First hunger and then thirst are lost. Speech is lost next, followed by vision. The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch.

We have an ideal perception around death, that a dying person wants to be surrounded by family in their final hours. But some people in the active phase of dying may actually prefer to be alone. And while this may be difficult for family members to hear, you can give yourself permission to ask for whatever you would like.

Studies indicate some dying people may feel they’re a burden to their family. Other people have difficulty saying “no” because they don’t want to disappoint or hurt others, or they may fear conflict. Know your limitations and don’t push beyond these to simply please others.

Many dying people feel they may be a burden to their families. from shutterstock.com

Have kind consideration for yourself. Remember you are a person before you’re a patient. And remember it’s OK to say “no” and forgo invitations.

If you’re caring for a loved one who is dying

Essential care demands such as helping the person you are caring for to feed, go to the toilet, and clean themselves, will not disappear at Christmas. If your loved one is dying at home, they may require unrelenting attention.

Be realistic with your expectations. This can be a different and simpler Christmas than others. Allow for spontaneity. Try not to be a martyr and delegate and ask others to help. Doing so enables others to feel they’re included and contributing in special ways.

Read more: Looking after a dying loved one at home? Here’s what you need to know

Listen to the person who is dying. Let them speak if and when they can. Gauge their mood and be guided by them. There is value in being present with the dying person without talking.

Heightened noise and activity, which often go hand in hand with the holiday season, can create distress for a terminally ill person. Ask family and friends to roster their visits over the different days of Christmas so as not to tire, overwhelm or stress the dying person.

People can think children don’t understand death and wouldn’t be able to cope with the concept, so often they may protect them by hiding it. But children are attuned to the family emotional dynamics. They know something is happening and they need their feelings validated. It can be helpful to get children involved in taking care of someone who is dying.

Research shows children do manage themselves well in the face of dying, when adults support them to deal with their responses.

Read more: Adults can help children cope with death by understanding how they process it

Expect things can change quite suddenly. Have a backup plan ready. Keep emergency contact details readily on hand always.

When dying is happening at Christmas, it’s best to allow all feelings to be expressed rather than simply putting on a brave or smiling face. Feelings are a natural response to suffering and what may be a stressful situation.

It’s mostly important to remember not to hide your needs and feelings but to speak and communicate with your loved ones. Especially when dying may be imminent.

ref. Not a season to be jolly: how to deal with dying during the holidays – http://theconversation.com/not-a-season-to-be-jolly-how-to-deal-with-dying-during-the-holidays-106063

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Exploring Australia’s ‘other reefs’ south of Tasmania

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Nic Bax, Director, NERP Marine Biodiversity Hub, CSIRO

Off southern Tasmania, at depths between 700 and 1,500 metres, more than 100 undersea mountains provide rocky pedestals for deep-sea coral reefs.

Unlike shallow tropical corals, deep-sea corals live in a cold environment without sunlight or symbiotic algae. They feed on tiny organisms filtered from passing currents, and protect an assortment of other animals in their intricate structures.

Deep-sea corals are fragile and slow-growing, and vulnerable to human activities such as fishing, mining and climate-related changes in ocean temperatures and acidity.

This week we returned from a month-long research voyage on CSIRO vessel Investigator, part of Australia’s Marine National Facility. We criss-crossed many seamounts in and near the Huon and Tasman Fracture marine parks, which are home to both pristine and previously fished coral reefs. These two parks are part of a larger network of Australian Marine Parks that surround Australia’s coastline and protect our offshore marine environment.

The RV Investigator criss-crossed the Huon and Tasman Fracture marine parks. CSIRO

The data we collected will answer our two key research questions: what grows where in these environments, and are corals regrowing after more than 20 years of protection?

Read more: Explainer: the RV Investigator’s role in marine science

Our eyes on the seafloor

Conducting research in rugged, remote deep-sea environments is expensive and technically challenging. It’s been a test of patience and ingenuity for the 40 ecologists, technicians and marine park managers on board, and the crew who provide electronics, computing and mechanical support.

But now, after four weeks of working around-the-clock shifts, we’re back in the port of Hobart. We have completed 147 transects covering more 200 kilometres in length and amassed more than 60,000 stereo images and some 300 hours of video for analysis.

The deep tow camera system weighs 350 kilos and has four cameras, four lights and a control unit encased in high-strength aluminium housings. CSIRO

A deep-tow camera system designed and built by CSIRO was our eye on the seafloor. This 350 kilogram system has four cameras, four lights and a control unit encased in high-strength aluminium housings.

An operations planner plots “flight-paths” down the seamounts, adding a one-kilometre run up for the vessel skipper to land the camera on each peak. The skipper navigates swell, wind and current to ensure a steady course for each one-hour transect.

An armoured fibre optic tow cable relays high-quality, real-time video back to the ship. This enables the camera “pilot” in the operations room to manoeuvre the camera system using a small joystick, and keep the view in focus, a mere two metres off the seafloor.

This is an often challenging job, as obstacles like large boulders or sheer rock walls loom out of the darkness with little warning. The greatest rapid ascent, a near-vertical cliff 45m in height, resulted in highly elevated blood pressure and one broken camera light!

Reaching into their world

Live imagery from the camera system was compelling. As well as the main reef-building stony coral Solenosmilia variabilis, we saw hundreds of other animals including feathery solitary soft corals, tulip-shaped glass sponges and crinoids. Their colours ranged from delicate creams and pinks to striking purples, bright yellows and golds.

To understand the make-up of coral communities glimpsed by our cameras, we also used a small net to sample the seafloor animals for identification. For several of the museum taxonomists onboard, this was their first contact with coral and mollusc species they had known, and even named, only from preserved specimens.

A deepwater hippolytid shrimp with large hooked claw, which it uses to clean coral and get food. CSIRO

We found a raft of undescribed species, as expected in such remote environments. In many cases this is likely to be the only time these species are ever collected. We also found animals living among the corals, hinting at their complex interdependencies. This included brittlestars curled around corals, polychaete worms tunnelling inside corals, and corals growing on shells.

We used an oceanographic profiler to sample the chemical properties of the water to 2,000m. Although further analysis is required, our aim here is to see whether long-term climate change is impacting the living conditions at these depths.

A curious feature of one of the southern seamounts is that it hosts the world’s only known aggregation of deep-water eels. We have sampled these eels twice before and were keen to learn more about this rare phenomenon.

Using an electric big-game fishing rig we landed two egg-laden female eels from a depth of 1,100 metres: a possible first for the record books.

Dave Logan of Parks Australia with an eel landed from more than a kilometre under the sea. Fraser Johnston/CSIRO

In a side-project, a team of observers recorded 42 seabird species and eight whale and dolphin species. They have one more set of data towards completing the first circum-Australia survey of marine birds and mammals.

More coral pedestals than we realise

An important finding was that living S. variabilis reefs extended between the seamounts on raised ridges down to about 1,450m. This means there is more of this important coral matrix in the Huon and Tasman Fracture marine parks than we previously realised.

In areas that were revisited to assess the regrowth of corals after two decades of protection from fishing, we saw no evidence that the coral communities are recovering. But there were signs that some individual species of corals, featherstars and urchins have re-established a foothold.

Read more: Sludge, snags, and surreal animals: life aboard a voyage to study the abyss

In coming months we will work through a sub-sample of our deep-sea image library to identify the number and type of organisms in certain areas. This will give us a clear, quantitative picture of where and at what depth different species and communities live in these marine parks, and a foundation for predicting their likely occurrence both in Australia and around the world.

The seamount corals survey involved 10 organisations: CSIRO, the National Environmental Science Program Marine Biodiversity Hub, Australian Museum, Museums Victoria, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, NIWA (NZ), three Australian universities and Parks Australia.

ref. Exploring Australia’s ‘other reefs’ south of Tasmania – http://theconversation.com/exploring-australias-other-reefs-south-of-tasmania-108986

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Here’s a long-term budget fix that would boost investment: replace company tax with cashflow tax

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Ross Garnaut, Professorial Research Fellow in Economics, University of Melbourne

Rather than waiting for the world to reach an agreement to act against multinational corporations that shift profits to tax havens, Australia should consider adopting our proposal for a cashflow tax, which would increase both investment and government revenue.

Many market-dominating multinational corporations have been aggressively reducing their global tax burdens by shifting their profits to tax havens.

BHP and Rio have been setting up so-called marketing hubs in low-tax Singapore.

Google bills Australians for advertisements on Australian websites in lower-tax Ireland, which itself pays fees to another subsidiary in even lower-tax Bermuda.

Read more: Budget policy check: do we need company tax cuts?

So big has the apparent flow of money into low-tax Ireland become that its national accounts data for 2015 showed a 26.3% real increase in gross domestic product.

Few think the Irish economy really improved by 26.3%.

What if we taxed cashflow instead of income?

In a new paper for the Melbourne Economic Forum, we propose replacing the conventional corporate income tax with what we are calling a “cashflow tax” to mitigate these problems while encouraging new private capital investment in Australia.

It wouldn’t tax profit as it is normally defined, but money coming in minus money going out – or “cashflow” – with the exception of money going out to repay loans, to pay dividends to shareholders, and to make payments to related parties that aren’t at arm’s length.

It could be easily done, because we already have all the information we need to tax onshore what happens onshore.

Read more: The full story on company tax cuts and your hip pocket

It would eliminate the messy distinction between capital expenditures, which can’t be deducted straight away, and other expenditures which can be. Everything that went out, for any purpose not exempt, would be immediately subtracted from what came in, and what was left would be taxed at 30%, or 25% if that’s what the government of the day wanted.

It would encourage investment…

It would make new investment – on things such as buildings, equipment, mines and the like – much more attractive. By immediately creating a negative cash flow, it would usually cut the investor’s tax bill to zero straight away.

We would allow companies to trade tax losses with companies making taxable profits, perhaps on the Australian Securities Exchange. Or they could carry forward their losses at the long-term government bond rate to offset against future profits.

…while levelling the financing playing field

Financial institutions would be taxed slightly differently, but at the same rate. Their taxable income would be interest and fees received minus interest and fees paid and costs including capital expenditure. Like other firms, they would be able to deduct capital expenditure immediately, but unlike other firms, they could also deduct the cost of borrowing.

For non-financial firms, because neither interest payments nor dividends would be tax deductible, the tax system would no longer favour debt over equity. They would no longer face a tax incentive to borrow instead of seeking out shareholders.

Reduced indebtedness would have advantages for financial efficiency and stability. It might reduce total profits of banks, but by immediately writing off capital expenditures banks could make higher profits per dollar lent.

It could be phased in over 10 years…

We propose phasing in the cashflow tax over 10 years – cutting company tax and lifting the cash flow tax by 3% per year.

Businesses that wanted to could make an irrevocable choice at any time to switch earlier.

Companies with big new capital investment plans would be likely to take the option of an early switch in order to immediately write off their expenses, while those paying interest on large accumulated debts would be likely to switch later.

…eventually raising an extra A$24 billion per year

Our modelling suggests that if the switch was phased in, the government would take in an extra A$24 billion per year when the transition was complete.

Most of the extra income would come from firms finding there were no longer tax advantages in shifting profits offshore.

If irrevocable switches were allowed, the government could take in up to an extra A$39 billion per year.

These estimates are likely to be conservative: they take no account of the additional capital expenditure that a cashflow tax would stimulate, or of the efficiency gains from replacing the heavily distorting corporate income tax with a non-distorting cashflow tax.

And securing the revenue base

While the Tax Office has been more active recently in clamping down on corporate tax avoidance, Australia’s anti-avoidance measures been ad hoc rather than systemic.

Global digital corporations are adept at using technology fees, management fees and puffed up interest rates for loans to inflate the tax-deductible expenses of their affiliates while declaring the income from those payments in tax havens.

Our proposal would disallow those deductions while allowing immediate total deductions for spending in Australia. Tax obligations wouldn’t be avoided, merely transferred to the Australian entity that provided the goods or services.

Early feedback

Our proposal was presented to a group of economists for feedback and reactions at the Melbourne Economic Forum on December 10.

They discussed the risk that multinational corporations such as digital companies and global fast-food chains would pull out of Australia if their opportunities for profit shifting to tax havens were closed down.

The general view was that they would stay in Australia because they could still earn rents (profits in excess of those necessary to encourage investment) from their Australian operations. The difference is that these rents would no longer be sheltered from Australian taxation. The Tax Office is already challenging the use of marketing hubs used by resource companies, which the cashflow tax would do in a more systematic way.

Read more: These private companies pay less tax than we do – but reasons remain unclear

The Forum also discussed the need to draw clear boundaries between financial institutions and other companies, to prevent those companies claiming interest deductions as if they were financial institutions.

Further design features requiring consideration include the treatment of unincorporated businesses and dividend imputation.

We prepared the cashflow tax proposal with Stephen Anthony, chief economist, Industry Super Australia.

ref. Here’s a long-term budget fix that would boost investment: replace company tax with cashflow tax – http://theconversation.com/heres-a-long-term-budget-fix-that-would-boost-investment-replace-company-tax-with-cashflow-tax-108347

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

View from The Hill: Michael McCormack fails leadership test in handling of Broad scandal

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

It took disgraced Nationals MP Andrew Broad 24 hours after the “sugar baby” story broke to announce the inevitable – that he won’t recontest his Victorian seat of Mallee. They do things slowly in the Nationals.

In Michael McCormack’s case, at glacial pace. The Nationals leader’s handling of the Broad scandal has been appalling. His failure to instantly inform Scott Morrison of a potentially explosive situation – the prime minister only learned of it on Monday – is inexplicable, and must severely strain the relationship between the two men at the top of the government.

McCormack on Monday muddled his account, saying he had only been told “a couple of weeks ago”, when he urged Broad to go to the police over the actions of a woman he met on a “seeking arrangement” website.

McCormack’s timetable was blown out of the water within hours by an Australian Federal Police statement that said Broad had referred the matter to it on November 8.

On Tuesday, McCormack’s performance was extraordinary.

He explained his confusion over timing by saying, “I don’t carry around the dates and times of what people tell me”.

He hadn’t informed Morrison at the start because “I don’t tell the prime minister everything about every member of parliament. He’s got enough on his mind at the moment.

“And quite frankly I thought it was a matter for Andrew to sort out with his family. Obviously, I wasn’t aware of the entire extent of what had taken place. I wasn’t made aware of that until yesterday.”

Asked whether he wanted Broad to run for Parliament again, McCormack blathered rather than just saying no.

Any diligent leader would have got to the bottom of the matter at once, extracting the full picture from Broad. Any prudent leader would have briefed the prime minister without delay. Any savvy leader would have known the scandal was likely to leak and that, anyway, Broad’s behaviour showed he was in an untenable position.

McCormack must live in some parallel universe if he ever thought his assistant minister’s account of flying off on an overseas date, followed by an apparent move to blackmail him, was just “a personal matter between him and his family”.

Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie said in a statement late Tuesday “The Nationals are not a party where this standard of behaviour is acceptable”.

Yet McCormack kept Broad on as his assistant minister for weeks. And in his Monday morning statement announcing Broad had resigned from the frontbench, the Nationals leader said Broad “will continue as an effective and hardworking Member for Mallee”.

McCormack’s leadership is only secure because we are so close to an election. He was already under criticism from within his party and his conduct over Broad might have brought on a challenge in other circumstances.

The Nationals, supposed to be a party of family values, have bookended the year with two personal scandals. Barnaby Joyce’s affair with his former staffer, now mother of his son, distracted the Coalition in the early months.

How the Morrison government’s grand tactical plan to overshadow Labor’s national conference went awry! The big story about a surging budget position, promising dollars for tax cuts was expected to dominate the news.

As things turned out, the government did squeeze out the Labor coverage – but for the worst of reasons.

Labor’s management plans, in contrast, went as smoothly as clockwork.

Tricky issues, notably border security, were stitched up. Potentially controversial polices, including how broadly a Labor government would allow industry-wide bargaining have been left for decisions by the leadership later.

Even what seemed the risky course of having Kevin Rudd address the conference – as a gesture of reconciliation and party unity – played out without a hitch.

A raid on New South Wales ALP headquarters in Sydney in pursuit of an ICAC investigation was embarrassingly timed but didn’t threaten the narrative at the conference in Adelaide.

The conference was used as a platform for announcements – on housing affordability, the protection of superannuation, the environment, reconciliation, refugees, the pursuit of gender pay equality. There were few votes and only one of them, on a left proposal for a human rights charter, involved a count – the left narrowly lost.

Controversy over signing up to a nuclear weapons ban treaty, on which Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong have different views, was defused by wording that leaves plenty of latitude.

One significant proposal that was passed calls for a Labor government to recognise Palestine, something that various state conferences have been urging strongly.

The role of the unions was proudly acknowledged.

The ACTU secretary Sally McManus told the conference: “The trade union movement is the early warning system for this nation. We are the earthquake sensors in the ocean that feel the tremors before they reach the shores. We are the smoke alarm trying to wake you from your deepest sleep. The siren that makes you look up before it is too late.

“And we are sounding the alarm now. We see the unfairness, we see the fair go being crushed with growing inequality. It is time to listen and to act. And Australian Labor, Bill Shorten, is doing just that.”

It’s notable that in the election for the ALP national executive, the CFMMEU has gone from one representative to two. Its national secretary, Michael O’Connor, is now a member of it. The conference has left open how much the unions will get as Labor unveils more detail of its industrial policy over the coming months.

ref. View from The Hill: Michael McCormack fails leadership test in handling of Broad scandal – http://theconversation.com/view-from-the-hill-michael-mccormack-fails-leadership-test-in-handling-of-broad-scandal-109008

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Tanya Plibersek on a united Labor

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

The Labor party has emerged from its three day national conference in Adelaide looking united and projecting itself as “ready to govern”.

Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek told The Conversation the ALP wants voters to see the party as “responsible and progressive”.

She says a Labor government would “work cooperatively with the trade union movement cause we share the same objective”.

“The union movement hasn’t got everything they wanted from the Labor party in this instance, but a lot of the changes we have made have been made better by the discussions that we’ve had over many months leading up to this conference,” she said.

On border security, Plibersek dismisses the use of three word slogans on both sides of the debate and argues “a more activist aid policy and more activist foreign policy” are needed to help asylum seekers.

ref. Politics with Michelle Grattan: Tanya Plibersek on a united Labor – http://theconversation.com/politics-with-michelle-grattan-tanya-plibersek-on-a-united-labor-109005

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Poll wrap: Labor widens lead in Ipsos; US Democrats gained 40 House seats at midterms

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This week’s Fairfax Ipsos poll, conducted December 12-15 from a sample of 1,200, gave Labor a 54-46 lead, a two-point gain for Labor since November. Primary votes were 37% Labor (up three), 36% Coalition (down one), 13% Greens (steady) and 6% One Nation (up one). As usual in Ipsos, the Greens are too high.

Respondent-allocated preferences were also 54-46 to Labor. While Malcolm Turnbull was PM, respondent preferences skewed to the Coalition relative to preferences derived from using 2016 election preference flows. However, Ipsos’ four polls since Scott Morrison became PM have shown no difference on average between respondent and previous election methods.

47% approved of Morrison (down one), and 39% disapproved (up three), for a net approval of +8. Bill Shorten’s net approval was down two points to -9. Morrison led by 46-37 as better PM (47-35 in November). Ipsos gives incumbent PMs higher ratings than Newspoll.

By 44-43, voters opposed Labor’s proposed changes that would restrict negative gearing tax deductions. By 48-43, voters opposed Labor’s proposal to halve the concession on capital gains tax. These questions highlight the potential for a Coalition scare campaign based on Labor’s proposed changes.

Four weeks ago, Ipsos and Essential both gave Labor just a 52-48 lead. The next week, Newspoll gave Labor a 55-45 lead, and now Ipsos is more in line with Newspoll.

Read more: Poll wrap: Labor’s worst polls since Turnbull; chaos likely in Victorian upper house

Essential: 53-47 to Labor

This week’s Essential poll, conducted December 13-16 from a sample of 1,026, gave Labor a 53-47 lead, a one-point gain for the Coalition since last fortnight. Primary votes were 37% Coalition (down one), 36% Labor (down three), 11% Greens (up one) and 7% One Nation (up one).

Since Morrison became PM, Essential has been consistently better for the Coalition than Newspoll. Last week’s Newspoll gave Labor a 41-35 primary vote lead, while Essential gives the Coalition a 37-36 primary lead.

A net +6 thought 2018 had been good for the Australian economy, but a net zero thought it had been good for their personal financial situation. Australian politics scored a net -50 and the Australian government a net -41. In voters’ predictions about next year, their personal financial situation was at a net +13 and the Australian economy at a net +2.

Since September, Morrison’s attribute scores have declined in positive attributes and gone up in negative attributes, with the largest change a seven-point increase in “erratic”. Morrison leads Shorten on most positive attributes and trails him on most negative ones, but differences are under eight points. An exception is that Morrison leads Shorten by four on being “out of touch”.

ReachTEL seat polls: huge swing to Labor in Kooyong, little swing in Boothby

ReachTEL has recently conducted federal seat polls of Kooyong in Victoria and Boothby in South Australia. In Kooyong, held by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Labor led by 52-48, a 15-point swing to Labor since the 2016 election. In Boothby, the Liberals led by 51-49, a two-point swing to Labor.

Seat polls are unreliable, but the Victorian state election had large swings to Labor in blue-ribbon Liberal seats in inner Melbourne. Kooyong and Higgins are located in the same territory. As I wrote last week, ReachTEL also had a massive swing to Labor in Higgins.

Victorian election statewide two party vote: 57.6-42.4 to Labor

At the November 24 Victorian state election, the Liberals did not contest Richmond. The electoral commission has conducted a two party Labor vs Coalition count in all seats except Richmond. According to analyst Kevin Bonham, Labor’s share of the two party vote ranges from 57.4% to 57.9% depending on how Richmond is treated.

The measure I prefer is to assign Richmond the same swing as the rest of the state, giving a two party result of 57.6-42.4 to Labor, a 5.6% swing to Labor since the 2014 election. That is only 0.2% less for Labor than at their 2002 landslide under Steve Bracks.

Labor won 55 of the 88 lower house seats, seven fewer than in 2002. This was mainly because the Greens won three seats where Labor won the two party vote, and so did independent Russell Northe in Morwell.

Read more: Historical fall of Liberal seats in Victoria; micros likely to win ten seats in upper house; Labor leads in NSW

In the upper house, the Greens won just one of 40 seats despite winning 9.3% of the vote. Bonham says the Greens were disadvantaged by being too big for micro parties to benefit from swapping preferences with them. However, they were also too small to win seats on raw quotas, as the major parties do.

Read more: Victorian upper house greatly distorted by group voting tickets; federal Labor still dominant in Newspoll

While the Greens were the biggest victims of the group voting ticket system, they almost cost Fiona Patten her seat. In North Metro, Green Samantha Ratnam made quota before Socialist preferences were distributed, allowing Patten to win.

According to Bonham, had Ratnam been under quota before Socialist preferences, she would have gone well over quota on their preferences, but her surplus would have gone mainly to Derryn Hinch Justice, and that party would have won the final North Metro seat instead of Patten.

Democrats gained 40 House seats at US midterms

All 435 US House seats are up for election every two years. At the November 6 US midterm elections, Democrats won the House by a 235-199 seat margin, with one seat undecided due to a dispute over alleged fraud by Republican campaigners in North Carolina’s ninth district. Since the pre-election Congress, this is a 40-seat gain for Democrats. Since the 2016 House results, it is a 41-seat gain.

According to Cook Political Report analyst Dave Wasserman, Democrats won the overall House popular vote by 8.6%. In 2016, Republicans won the House popular vote by 1.1%, and Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing to Hillary Clinton by 2.1% in the national popular vote.

Democrats’ gains mainly occurred in suburbs, where there was a high level of educational attainment. Republicans held up much better in rural America. While Democrats will have 54% of the new House, their seats will represent just 20% of US land area.

CNN analyst Harry Enten says this was Democrats’ largest seat gain in a House election since 1974, and the best performance in popular votes by a pre-election minority House party since records began in 1942. Although turnout was low by Australian standards at 50.3%, this was the highest turnout at a US midterm election in the last 100 years.

Republicans held the Senate by a 53-47 margin, a two-seat gain for Republicans since the last Congress. However, the 33 regular Senate races were last contested in 2012, when Democrats had a great year. Democrats lost North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Florida, but gained Nevada and Arizona. They won the 33 regular elections by 23-10. Including byelections in Minnesota and Mississippi, Democrats won the 35 Senate races by 24-11.

Read more: Poll wrap: Coalition, Morrison slip further in Newspoll; US Democrats gain in late counting

The new US Congress will be sworn in on January 3. Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi is very likely to be elected Speaker of the new House.

In November 2020, the US presidency and all of the House are up. Of the 34 Senate seats that will be up for election, 22 are Republican-held and just 12 Democrat-held. This will be a big opportunity for Democrats to take back the Senate.

Theresa May wins Conservative confidence vote, 200-117

To trigger a Conservative motion of confidence in the leader, 15% (48 members in this case) of Conservative MPs must submit letters expressing no-confidence in the leader. This threshold was reached on December 12, but UK Prime Minister Theresa May won a confidence vote of all Conservative MPs by a 200-117 margin. May now cannot be challenged for a year.

If anywhere near 117 Conservatives reject May’s Brexit deal, it is very difficult to see it passing the House of Commons. The confidence vote in May does not make a “no deal” Brexit less likely. As I wrote on my personal website, unless the Commons acts in some way, Britain will crash out of the European Union on March 29, 2019.

ref. Poll wrap: Labor widens lead in Ipsos; US Democrats gained 40 House seats at midterms – http://theconversation.com/poll-wrap-labor-widens-lead-in-ipsos-us-democrats-gained-40-house-seats-at-midterms-108907

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media