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Australia's Fires Emitted Half of the Country’s Annual CO2 Emissions

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Australia's Fires Emitted Half of the Country’s Annual CO2 Emissions
NOAA-NASA's Suomi NPP satellite flew over the New South Wales fires in Australia on Dec. 16 and found devastation from the ongoing fires. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service is reporting 96 fires are burning and to date the size of the area burned is 1.5 times the size of the state of Connecticut. NASA

The bushfires that have been tearing through New South Wales and Queensland, decimating koala habitats, taxing the water supply, and choking the air since August have claimed six lives. Now, new NASA data shows that the fires have emitted 250 million tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of half thee country's annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to The Guardian. In 2018, Australia's total greenhouse has emissions was 532 million tons of carbon dioxide.


Dr. Niels Andela, a scientist at the NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and a collaborator in the Global Fire Emissions Database, gave the data to The Guardian Australia.

Usually, bushfires are considered carbon neutral, because when vegetation regrows it absorbs the carbon dioxide the fires have emitted. However, scientists are predicting that the scale of this year's fires coupled with drought-stricken forests will make it impossible for the vegetation to absorb the carbon, as The Guardian reported.

"Drought-stressed trees recover less well – carbohydrates reserves are exhausted – and under climate change tree growth may be slow and fires more frequent, meaning less tree biomass and even loss of forest cover," said David Bowman, a fire ecologist at the University of Tasmania, to the Guardian. "This is a nasty negative feedback cycle of a biosphere carbon sink becoming a source [of carbon]."

Pep Canadell, a senior research scientist at the CSIRO Climate Science Centre, told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Australia's forests had more in common with the Amazon than people would think.

"We're talking about very different sizes, of course. [There] are more carbon-dense forests in Amazonia than in Australia," said Canadell. "Having said that, a lot of [bush areas] burning now in NSW are actually exceptionally carbon-dense — they're very tall and quite dense forests. So from a per square meter or hectare level, we're certainly not shy away from what is happening in the Amazon."

The bushfires have already burned over 6.7 million acres of land and they could last through the Australian summer, until March or longer, as Gizmodo reported.

The fires follow the pattern of the Amazon fires and the California fires that create a carbon feedback loop, where human activity compromises Earth's ability to absorb carbon as we emit more of it, according to Gizmodo. These events are becoming more common as the Earth warms. It's especially evident in melting permafrost, which releases a tremendous amount of trapped carbon as it thaws, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic Report Card found.

"This pulse of fire emissions should indeed be of concern. Any additional carbon emissions to the atmosphere, with no guarantee that it will be removed back by regrowing vegetation in a later stage, is of concern, particularly in an Australia under climate change," said Canadell, as The Guardian reported. He added, "Thus, it is important to understand both risks – the emissions from fires but also the potential long-term loss of CO2 sink capacity of the terrestrial vegetation due to the incomplete recovery of burned landscapes due to permanent degradation. These emissions are very significant."

"The nightmare scenario is that because of climate change, the forest isn't able to recover itself," said Bowman to ABC. "Once we actually know for certain what's happening, it's going to be too late. And this is a big thing to be wrong about."

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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