Australia appears to be committing climate suicide

Media across the world have been publishing articles and photos on the catastrophic bushfires in Australia. Richard Flanagan, a well-known Australian author, published an opinion piece in the New York Times two days ago, which fairly accurately summarized the impact of the fires and the complete inadequacy of the government and political response (Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide).

Mogo, a town on the NSW south coast has been devastated by bushfires. One Mogo resident watched his 92 year old father’s house burning next door. At the time of taking this photo, he wasn’t sure where his father was. Credit: James Brickwood

Here are some quotes from the article:

“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.       …….

“The fires have already burned about 14.5 million acres — an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Day was the most polluted in the world partly because of a plume of fire smoke as wide as Europe.

“Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.” At least 18 people are dead and grave fears are held about many more. …..”

A deceased horse on a property on the outskirts of Cobargo, a town on the NSW south coast that was devastated by bushfires at New Year. Credit: James Brickwood

Other impacts not mentioned by this article include the more than 1500 houses burnt down or the growing number of towns across NSW and Victoria devastated. The last couple of days have probably increased the number of deaths to around 30. Record temperatures were recorded in Canberra and Sydney, with the temperature in Penrith reaching 48.9 degrees, the highest ever recorded in the Sydney region. A cool change yesterday brought strong winds of up to 104 km/hour.

Dead livestock on a property south west of Cobargo. Credit: James Brickwood

The article goes on to draw a parallel between Australia’s situation and that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s when an all-powerful political clique demented on its own fantasies faced a monstrous reality which it had neither the ability or will to confront.

Batemans Bay residents surrounded by thick smoke wait on the beach on New Year’s Eve (Picture: 9News)

Residents of coastal towns in NSW and Victoria have sheltered on beaches, and in some cases taken to the water to escape the fires. The Australian Government belatedly sent three naval ships to evacuate residents from some beaches.  Families with young babies were left stranded in Mallacoota when the navy ship refused to take children under 5 (apparently because they would have to climb a ladder onto the ship) and told the families to wait for an aircraft to evacuate them. When the aircraft arrived, it was unable to land because of the zero visibility and the families were left stranded and trapped.  Fuel is running low in many of the towns affected and people are unable to leave.

An 11 year old boy navigates a boat through thick smoke at Mallacoota, as fire advanced on the seaside Victorian town on December 31, 2019.

Some further quotes from the article:

“And yet, incredibly, the response of Australia’s leaders to this unprecedented national crisis has been not to defend their country but to defend the fossil fuel industry, a big donor to both major parties — as if they were willing the country to its doom. While the fires were exploding in mid-December, the leader of the opposition Labor Party went on a tour of coal mining communities expressing his unequivocal support for coal exports. The prime minister, the conservative Scott Morrison, went on vacation to Hawaii.

“Since 1996 successive conservative Australian governments have successfully fought to subvert international agreements on climate change in defense of the country’s fossil fuel industries. Today, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of both coal and gas. It recently was ranked 57th out of 57 countries on climate-change action.

“This posture seems to be a chilling political calculation: With no effective opposition from a Labor Party reeling from its election loss and with media dominated by Rupert Murdoch — 58 percent of daily newspaper circulation — firmly behind his climate denialism, Mr. Morrison appears to hope that he will prevail as long as he doesn’t acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster engulfing Australia.     ……

“The situation is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the ruling apparatchiks were all-powerful but losing the fundamental, moral legitimacy to govern. In Australia today, a political establishment, grown sclerotic and demented on its own fantasies, is facing a monstrous reality which it has neither the ability nor the will to confront.     …..

“As Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, once observed, the collapse of the Soviet Union began with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. In the wake of that catastrophe, “the system as we knew it became untenable,” he wrote in 2006. Could it be that the immense, still-unfolding tragedy of the Australian fires may yet prove to be the Chernobyl of climate crisis?”

Day turns to a blood red sky in Mallacoota with the South Westerly change sparking up fire activity in the area on Saturday 28 December. Credit: Justin McManus

Mitochondrial Eve – an update

A recently published paper in Nature (Oct 18) has analysed the mitochondrial DNA of 1,200 indigenous Africans living in the southern part of Africa and identified the ancestral homeland of all humans alive today, the place where mitochondrial Eve lived nearly 200,000 years ago. More on that below, but first some background.

In February 2014, I did a series of posts on my deep maternal ancestors, identified through a test of mutations on my mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is inherited only from the mother. These mutations allowed me to track back through time to mitochondrial Eve, the single woman from whom all humans alive today descended through their female line (mother to mother to mother….).  Specific mutations on the mtDNA define maternal haplogroups, and the founder of a given haplogroups is the specific individual woman in which the defining mutation occurred. All members of a given haplogroup trace their maternal ancestry back to this founder.

DNA tests have become much less expensive, and can include much more detailed testing. In the last three months, I’ve redone a test on my mtDNA and also on my Y DNA, which is inherited only down the male line (father to father to father….). I am still digesting the results of these tests, and will post on them in the near future.  One of the first things I discovered was that the dates associated with haplogroup founders have been revised over time, and as more and more test results are available, and that the terminology used for identifying haplogroups has also evolved.  I also came across very recent research which has pinned down the location where mitochondrial Eve lived, as well as revised estimates of the time period in which she lived.

Haplogroup U5 – the oldest of seven native European haplogroups

My mtDNA haplogroup is U5, the oldest of the seven native European haplogroups. Haplogroup U most likely arose in the Near East, and spread into Europe in a very early expansion, giving rise to seven native European haplogroups, including U5. The presence of haplogroup U5 in Europe pre-dates the last ice age and the expansion of agriculture in Europe. Today, about 10% of modern Europeans are the direct maternal descendants of the founder U5 woman, who has been given the nickname Ursula*. They are particularly well represented in western Britain and Scandinavia.

Ancestral migration path of maternal ancestors for haplogroup U5

Haplogroup U in turn is descended via haplogroups R and N from haplogroup L3, which is associated with a migration of humans out of Africa around 70,000 to 50,000 years ago. The dominant theory of human origins, the “recent African origin” theory, proposes that all modern non-African populations are substantially descended from populations of H. sapiens that left Africa after during that time period. H. sapiens most likely developed in Africa between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago, and there were at least several “out-of-Africa” migrations of modern humans, possibly beginning as early as 270,000 years ago. These early dispersals may have died out or retreated, although some paleoanthropologists argue that they possibly interbred with various other local hominid species and with later humans from “recent-out-Africa” and it just so happens that all the maternal lineages trace back to “recent-out-Africa”. Of all the lineages present in Africa, only the female descendants of Lara*, founder of the L3 haplogroup, are found outside Africa. If there had been several migrations, one would expect descendants of more than one lineage to be found.  Of course, all this could be upturned if descendants of other African lineages are found outside Africa, and can be traced back to earlier migrations.

Mitochondrial Eve (haplogroup L)

Mitochondrial Eve (mt-Eve) is a member of Haplogroup L and lived just before the divergence of macro-haplogroup L into L0 and L1–6 (see diagram below). Today the haplogroup L0 and its offshoots are found mainly in southern and eastern Africa, with particularly high frequencies among the San people (bushmen) of Botswana, Namibia and other countries of southern Africa.

Haplogroup L1 is found in West and Central sub-Saharan Africa. The descendants of haplogroup L1 are also African haplogroups L2 and L3, the latter of which gave rise to all non-African haplogroups.

Phylogenetic tree for mtDNA Haplogroup L, commencing with mitochondrial Eve, the most recent common maternal ancestor (MRCA) of all humans.

A recent paper by Chan et al. in Nature (October 2019) [1] analysed the genomes of more than 1,200 indigenous Africans living in southern Africa and claim to have identified precisely where and when the L haplogroup split into L0 and L1 and when these groups migrated from their homeland.

Chan et al. identified this homeland as Makgadikgadi, a vast wetland some 120,000 square kilometers in area, or roughly twice the area of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake today. Mitochondrial Eve and her descendants lived in this region for about 30,000 years (from 200,000 to 170,000 years ago) before the L0 lineage split into its first subgroup. Today, Makgadikgadi is one of the largest salt flats in the world. Climate models suggest that, 200,000 years ago, it was a fertile oasis.  The map  shows the overall location of Makgadikgadi in southern Africa, and the following map shows  a more detailed view.

Satellite view of the Makgadikgadi salt pans. This area is located about 250 km south of Victoria Falls close to the borders of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Chan et al [1] date the deepest rooting L0 branch to 200,000 years ago (with 95% confidence interval 165,000 – 240,000 years ago).  I have reviewed the most recent comprehensive dating of maternal haplogroups and found that the dates in Fu et al (2012)  [2] and Behar et al [2013] were in reasonably good agreement.  I have used dates from Behar et al, which give a date of  176,700 years ago (confidence interval ± 11,300 years) for mitochondrial Eve, and 136,300 (± 11,700) years ago for L1. This is substantially earlier than the date of the recent out-of-Africa dispersal of L3 around 65,000 years ago.

The Okavango delta, in north-west Botswana, looks very similar to how Makgadikgadi would have looked 170,000-200,000 years ago. Credit: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75769486

Migrations from the Makgadikgadi homeland

The Makgadikgadi wetlands were large, wet, and lush with vegetation. They would have provided an ideal home for wildlife and for early humans, including mt-Eve. So why did some migrate?  Around 130,000 years ago, there was a major climatic shift associated with the end of the penultimate glacial period. This led to higher rainfall and created “green corridors” leading to the northeast and to the southwest.  In particular, it appears that the ancestral founder of the L1 haplogroup lived around 136,000 years ago among a group that had migrated north into Zambia, and by around 70,000 years ago her descendents had made their way north to the horn of Africa, where Lara (L3 haplogroup founder live).

The “green corridors” proposed by Chan et al [1] helped lead humans out of the ancestral homeland

Chan and his group have extrapolated the likely location of mt-Eve’s homeland from the present-day distribution of the L haplgroup in Southern Africa, and it is always possible that future data may lead to revisions of this conclusion. However, multiple sets of evidence lead to the conclusion that mt-Eve was among the ancestors of the San people of southern Africa, although of course we likely will never know for sure exactly where she lived. And this was not the only ancestral human homeland. Y-DNA evidence suggests that Y-Adam lived in West Africa in a time period even further in the past (this will be subject of a future post) and of course, there may be other ancestral homelands associated with the many other ancestral lines than the purely maternal and paternal.

The San people of southern Africa have one of the most oldest maternal DNA lineages on Earth. They share the Haplogroup L with mitochondrial Eve who lived in northern Botswana nearly 200,000 years ago.


* Bryan Sykes in his 2001 book The seven daughters of Eve gave names to each of the women who founded the seven native European haplogroups, and also names to some of their ancestral haplogroups. He chose names that began with the letter by which the haplogroup was identified. Oppenheimer (The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, 2006) followed this example and also gave names to both mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups. To emphasise that the maternal clan founders were real individuals, who were my ancesters, I have used these names and given my own names to the more recent subgroup founders.

References

[1] Chan EKF, Hardie RA, Petersen DC, Beeson K, Bornman RMS, et al. (2015) Revised Timeline and Distribution of the Earliest Diverged Human Maternal Lineages in Southern Africa. PLOS ONE 10(3): e0121223.
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0121223

[2] Fu Q, Mittnik A, Johnson PLF, et al. A revised timescale for human evolution based on ancient mitochondrial genomes. Curr Biol. 2013;23(7):553–559. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.044
https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)00215-7?code=cell-site

[3] Behar D, van Oven M, Rosset S, et al. A “Copernican” Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from Its Root. Am J Hum Genet. 2012;90(5):936. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2012.04.007
Open ArchiveDOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2012.03.002

Australian bushfires and global warming

At the beginning of December, 118 forest fires were burning in NSW, 48 of them out of control. The bushfire season started much earlier this year, with more than 140 fires in northern New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland, which destroyed over 600 homes and killed six people. One of these fires destroyed the Binna Burra resort in the Lamington National Park, as well as surrounding rainforest. This was followed by another outbreak of bushfires in November, with more than 129 bushfires in NSW and Queensland. At least 200 houses were destroyed and four people killed.

By the end of November, around 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of bushland had been burnt, and all this before the start of summer and the traditional bushfire season  According to the Climate Council of Australia, the catastrophic, unprecedented fire conditions currently affecting NSW and Queensland have been aggravated by climate change. Bushfire risk was exacerbated by record breaking drought, very dry fuels and soils, and record breaking heat. Since the mid-1990s, southeast Australia has experienced a 15% decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25% decline in average rainfall in April and May. Across Australia average temperature has increased leading to more record breaking hot weather. Extreme fire danger days have increased.

Extensive fires currently burning in the Blue Mountains

I was in Australia in November to visit family at Noosa. A couple of days before my trip, I was stunned to read on the web that Tewantin, the suburb next to Noosaville where I was headed, was being evacuated because of the threatening bushfire.

While I was in Noosa, the residents of Noosa North Shore were evacuated because of another fire, as were the people who lived around Lake Cooroibah, about 10 km upstream on the Noosa River. Some days later, I drove up to Cooroibah where I saw extensive burnt areas of bush.  The photos below show the fire damage. Most of the trees are evergreen eucalypts (gum trees) and the dead leaves from the heat are orange or brown. Though it may look like autumn colours to those from the Northern Hemisphere, it is actually dead leaves. Most of the larger trees will regenerate, as the ecucalypt forests of Australia have evolved to adapt to fire, with thick bark, an ability to resprout along their entire trunks, and in some cases depend on fire to open their seed pods.  Animals such as the koala bear and other threatened species do not do so well, particularly when the fires are widespread and have significant impact on populations.

Bushland near Lake Cooroiba

Around 2,500 people were evacuated from about 440 homes in this area, but only one house and some sheds were destroyed. A teenage boy on his own in the house that was destroyed managed to make it into the nearby lake as the fire came over.

Burnt forest on the shore of Lake Cooroiba

The fire came quite close to this house.

There is a small housing development here, and the fire came within 50 metres of the houses. I spoke to one resident who told me he and his dog stayed, and hid when the police came to evacuate everyone.

Years ago when I lived in Sydney, there were regularly bushfires in the nearby Blue Mountains where increasing numbers of people were living. Those who stayed with their homes were able to put out spot fires, fill gutters with water, and deal with floating embers. Those who left their houses often returned to find the houses burnt down. Of course, those who underestimated the intensity of the fire and stayed sometimes paid with their lives.

So it’s a difficult call whether to stay or leave. One time in the 1980s, I went up to the Blue Mountains to help some friends during a bushfire. We stayed with the house and fought the spot fires successfully. The house was on a ridge and the wind drove the fire up the side of the ridge and over the house. As the fire approached, the heat increased and it became very difficult to breathe due to smoke. We all wrapped ourselves in wet towels and lay flat in the gutter of the road where the air was clearer. The fire passed over us and we were OK, though somewhat terrified. Australian eucalypts have a lot of eucalyptus oil in the leaves, and the heat vaporises this into the air, so that fires will spread at tree height, and in the most intense fires will leap across the tops of the trees as the eucalyptus oil above the trees ignites.

Fire damaged bark on a tree trunk

Returning to 2019, although Australia has always had devastating bushfires in some years, scientists and fire service chiefs have stated that the fire risk this year is the highest ever. Back in August, the The Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCR) warned that New South Wales and Queensland and some other parts of Australia faced higher than normal fire potential. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology publishes a Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) which combines measurement of temperature, humidity, rainfall, evaporation and wind speel. Their cumulative winter index for 2019 (BOM), published in September, shows the overwhelming majority of the country, with a few exceptions in Victoria, central Queensland and western Tasmania, is experiencing between “above average” and “highest on record” fire conditions when compared with the average since 1950 (see map below). The measured FFDI values were in the extreme category (over 75) across large areas, reaching the catastrophic category (FFDI values of 100 or above) at some locations in New South Wales.

In line with the measured rise in average annual surface temperature over recent decades, the FFDI has been increasing across most of eastern Australia. Projections by Bureau of Meteorology Scientists recently published in Nature (ref), continue to show an increase in FFDI values due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the century. This result is robust across a range of climate projection models, methods and metrics. This means that the number of days in the year where the FFDI value represents “Very High” fire danger will increase substantially over the next 50 years.

What is the political response to all this?  The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a climate denialist and stated that there was no evidence to link the increased bushfire risk to climate change. He went further and stole a line from US poliiticians, telling the nation “Now is not the time to discuss possible causes of the fires, instead we must pray for the victims.”

Extinction Rebellion and other forms of climate protest have become more vocal recently, and Morrison recently announced hi intention to outlaw and criminalize protest by climate activists. The Queensland government is also fast-tracking laws to crack down on climate protesters.

The Australian government is also discussing how to outlaw consumer boycotts of businesses such as coal miners. They have a bit of a problem figuring out how to do that as some of the major banks and investment companies are also avoiding investment in fossil fuels.

Bushland burnt in September near Peregian Beach

Is ASMR an altered state of consciousness?

A few days ago, I was watching Would I Lie to You (WILTY), a BBC panel show in which contestants have to bluff about their deepest secrets…and the opposing team have to find out which ones are true. One of the best things on TV.  On this particular episode, a mystery guest Charlotte came onto the show, and each member of one team had to explain how they knew Charlotte.  Joe Lycett claimed that “In the evenings, I like to relax by watching videos of her wrapping gifts on YouTube. “

It turned out to be true. Afterwards, I looked up Charlotte on YouTube and found a video of her wrapping presents.

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Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.

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The 10 greatest athletic feats of the 21st century – transcending perceived limits of mind and body

I have been following Eliud Kichoge’s bid to be the first human to run a marathon in less than 2 hours. He succeeded on Saturday with a time of 1 hour 59 mins and 40 seconds. This is an absolutely extraordinary achievement. It was not an official world record, because of the use of rotating pacemakers and because Kipchoge was handed his drinks from a bike, but it is still the fastest marathon ever run. After he finished, Kipchoge said that he had wanted to send a message to the world that no human is limited.

This made me think about a number of extraordinary feats that I’ve seen achieved in recent years and I decided to make a list of my top 10 most extraordinary human achievements in the realm of extreme feats that broke barriers and went beyond perceived limits of mind and body. Quite a few of these feats involve non-ordinary states of consciousness that need total engagement in the here-now, unity of mind and body, and transcendence of distracting thoughts and emotions. States known as “being in the zone” or “flow” to athletes, as “immovable mind” to the samurai and as samadhi to Zen practitioners.

I also decided arbitrarily to restrict my list to feats achieved in the last 20 years, or in other words, in the 21st century (counting the year 2000 as part of this century). This is an idiosyncratic list that reflects my interests and the level of amazement and awe that watching (or in one case reading an account of) the event inspired in me. You may well have a very different list, though I think at least the ones towards the top should be on most lists.

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Climate change and the undermining of science

Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have been raising awareness of the urgent need to stop talking and start acting on global warming. The evidence that global warming is real and that it is human-caused is now overwhelming, but the public debate is regularly swamped by science deniers who in most cases clearly simply ignore or are ignorant of the evidence, and often are clearly clueless about how to assess evidence, or even what constitutes evidence.

The first illustration below, from a recent Economist issue, summarises the rise in average temperature across the earth’s surface in 2018 compared to the average for 1951-1980.

Many deniers claim that the current rising temperature is natural, resulting from ice age cycles or orbital variations of the earth. The graph below shows how current CO2 levels are dramatically higher and rising faster than in any interglacial period over the last half million years. And our best climate models predict temperature rises associated with CO2 levels which match measured temperatures over the last 40 years. If the impact of CO2 is excluded from the models, it is not possible to explain the observed rise in temperature (see graph below).

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