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THE ACCIDENTAL SCIENTIST

Amongst many gifts I received in the Daintree was the inspiration to open up
to science. How many of us were once pronounced hopeless at science?
Those who understood and studied it at uni were a different species. Since
then, life has been much about science, but you could get along just fine
ignoring it.
In my case, the twin impacts of the crusade of Richard Dawkins (The
God Delusion) and of the global warming imperative, have awoken me, but
it took an assignment in the Daintree to add, well, scientific rigour.
In looking at world heritage values in the region for Australian
Geographic, my first stop was at the Australian Canopy Crane, Cape
Tribulation. Here I was, 20m above the rainforest canopy with ecologist
Cassandra Nichols, suspended from a gigantic industrial crane. Below, amidst
the trees, beyond to the ranges and eastwards to the Coral Sea, this unique
Gondwanan world provides a near perfect laboratory for the scientist, not to
mention an imperishable prospect for the tourist.
The crane is a pivotal facility for research conducted by James Cook
University into the impact of climate change in the wet tropics. So impressed
was I by the setting, the colossal structure and the enthusiasm of Cassandra
and her colleagues, that I absorbed the science like a child (well, not a child as
I was).
Here, in the wet tropics, I learnt, exists Australias greatest diversity of
plants and animals within an area of only 0.26% of the continent. A number of
these species are endemiconly found here, nowhere elseand many are of
antediluvian origin.
The crane gives researchers access to a highly significant zone: the
forest canopy, where the atmosphere meets the biosphere resulting in an
amazing amount of biotic interaction. The tropical rainforest harbours great
diversity and much of that diversity thrives up here, in the canopy.
Its for this reason that scientists talk of it as the worlds last biological
frontier.
Following the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, the wet tropics can expect warmer weather, longer dry seasons,
greater variability in rainfall, more frequent severe cyclones and rising sea
levels. An increase of 2 or more will result in a 50% decline in cool forest
environments and the consequent extinction of numerous upland endemic
species; total disruption to the habitats of tree-dwelling leaf eaters; a
reduction in the quantity of moisture removed from clouds by forests due to
higher cloud levels, endangering numerous plants and animals such as
mosses and frogs; more intense invasions of feral creatures and weeds; and
the devastation of lowland ecosystems by storm surges and saltwater
intrusion.
Current canopy crane projects come under the broad heading of
Climate change, scaling from trees to ecosystems, easy to understand, even
for you non-scientists. Researchers working from the crane undertake minute
observations of leaves, flowers and insects, while at the nearby Daintree
Discovery Centre a stream of weather data is collected.
I had privileged access to the Australian Canopy Crane, and enjoyed
soaring over the treetops as well as descending slowly into dense, flourishing
nether regions. It is understandably not open to tourists, though if funding for
research is needed, I expect that many would pay handsomely for the
experience.
Visitors are welcome at the Daintree Discovery Centre, and there, this
neophyte scientist looked attentively at how it is reducing its own carbon
footprint, participating in cassowary and rainforest rescue projects and
conserving the areas unique bio-diversity. The centres communication
strategy is outstanding; it is a model for sustainable tourism everywhere, not
only in the Queensland Wet Tropics.

Murray Laurence

This article was published in The Weekend Australian, 30-31 October 2010