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Sydney Is Running out of Water as Bushfires Rage

Climate
Sydney Is Running out of Water as Bushfires Rage
Warragamba Dam on Oct. 23 in Sydney, Australia. Sydney's dams have been less than 50 percent full as drought conditions continue across New South Wales. Brook Mitchell / Getty Images

While Sydney faced "catastrophic fire danger" for the first time earlier this week, and nearly 130 wildfires continue to burn in New South Wales and Queensland, Sydney now faces another problem; it's running out of water.


The water shortage is a mounting problem as the wildfires are predicted to gain in strength and intensity this weekend when temperatures will climb above 100 degrees in some parts as a bank of hot air travels across the country, according to the BBC.

Sydney — Australia's largest city and home to nearly 5 million people — is facing a severe water shortage and is grappling with a warning that its dams may run dry by May 2022, as CNN reported.

Throughout the Australian winter and now the spring, Sydney and its surrounding areas have been under a water restriction that limits the amount of water people can use to fill pools and it puts a moratorium on leaving a running hose unattended.

The New South Wales water authority said that Sydney's dams are just under 47 percent of their capacity and the number is expected to drop. When the water line drops to 40 percent of the dams' capacity, then Sydney will ramp up the water restrictions, which is expected at the end of the Australian summer in February or March, as CNN reported.

This time last year, the dams were 64 percent full. The water authority said that more than 85 percent of Sydney's water supply depends on rainfall. However, as the drought continues, Sydney may face a severe water crisis, according to CNN.

To slow that march, Level 2 restrictions will limit the amount of water people can use on a daily basis. One restriction, for example, would mean that gardens could be watered a few days a week, but not every day, as CNN reported.

"With the current rate of depletion we could be in a tricky situation in a couple of years," said Melinda Pavey, the state's water minister, to CNN affiliate 7News in Australia.

The water shortages have left New South Wales' residents in a bind as towns outside of Sydney are even closer to day-zero, the day when no water remains. Parts of northern and inland New South Wales, along with southern Queensland, have suffered under a drought since 2016 that has severely depleted rivers and dams, as Reuters reported.

The most hard-hit towns, like Guyra, which is just over 300 miles from Sydney, are on pace to run out of water in late 2020 or early 2021. Authorities have had to spend enormous amounts to truck in water and build pipes to nearby dams, according to Reuters.

"A lot of towns are forecast to run out at the same time — and then where do you get the water from?" said Simon Murray, the mayor of Guyra, as Reuters reported.

Last month the deputy premier of New South Wales said that some of the state's largest towns will struggle to survive if the drought lasts another three years, as Reuters reported.

That trend spells trouble for Sydney, which already suffers from congestion. If the drought continues, residents are less likely to move away to towns where water is running out. If they stay and more people move in, the water supply will face greater demand and increased stress.

"You've had political focus on getting more people into the regions but if people are thinking about moving to a regional town and they read the place is about to run out of water that might put questions in their mind," said Terry Rawnsley, a local economist, to the Reuters. "People are drifting away from towns because the drought has weakened the economy but those who want to move away from Sydney are turned off because water is such a fundamental requirement."

However, the pressing concern this weekend is the wildfires. The extreme and persistent drought has New South Wales and Queensland tinder-dry, with forests, grasslands, and farmland vulnerable to dry lightning strikes or accidental blazes, according to The Guardian.

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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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