Science Heresy - October 2012



Left: Macquarie Island 3 month running mean of monthly rainfall.

Right: Macquarie Island 3 month running mean of daily maximum temperature



Why Jeremy Smith is Wrong

John Reid
September 2012



No, Jeremy - it's not about "liking the island better". My article raised a number of political, scientific and philosophical issues, none of which you address. Instead, you yourself resort to sentiment and half-baked science to justify this massive environmental blunder. Indeed, despite the evidence, you seem barely able to admit that there even was a blunder. Like others before you, you continue to muddle the environmental effects of the 19th century sealing activity with the rabbit-explosion which resulted from the do-gooder "scientific" intervention of the last couple of decades. You do not seem to appreciate that there is a huge difference between conservation, the preservation of remnant wilderness, and restoration, the ideologically-driven futile attempt to restore degraded wilderness to its original state. Evidently the latter is okay if we do it on islands. You fail to mention the other great advantage of such island projects, the absence of public scrutiny.

Your entire argument seems to be based on a starry-eyed, feel-good description of how various life forms appear to be rapidly returning to the island. If this is happening as rapidly as you suggest, then surely this indicates that these life forms are well established close by and were never "threatened" in the first place. Terms like "deserve to be there" and "better gone" are not exactly scientific are they?

The response of the vegetation has been "amazing". There was nothing wrong with the vegetation when I was there. It is nice to know that at least some of the damage caused by these high-minded efforts has proved reversible. It has all been an "extraordinary success". According to whom? The same people and organisations who created the problem in the first place. "Rats and rabbits ... are almost certainly extinct". Isn't it a little early to make such a statement? If even a single rabbit pair has survived in an inaccessible cliff-face or gully (and there are plenty) it will be some years before they breed up sufficiently to be noticeable once again.

However my strongest objection to your response are the deliberate distortions of fact that it contains. The most egregious is your statement about the cause of Azorella dieback: "Almost certainly (as shown by on-going physiological investigations as well as meteorological data) it is due to drought ...".

I know nothing about the physiological investigations (a reference would be handy if one exists) but the statement about drought is demonstrably false. I downloaded monthly averaged daily maximum temperature and monthly rainfall data gathered by the Met Bureau station at Buckles Bay, Macquarie Island for the period 1948 to 2012. I then averaged these data with a 3 month running mean so that the graphs appear less noisy but would still show drought and heatwaves had any occurred. The results are shown at the top of the page. It can be seen from these graphs that no unusual temperature or rainfall events occurred in the last ten years which is when the Azorella dieback first appeared. Temperatures were higher in the 1980s and it was much drier in the 1960s than it is now. If drought were the cause of Azorella dieback it should have appeared in the 1960s and not in recent years as reported by Aleks Terauds in the ABC program.

Other glibly quoted "facts" concerns the rabbit plague itself: The rabbits reached plague numbers in the 90's for a combination of reasons. They had previously been at similar numbers in the '60s but were knocked down by myxomatosis. The myxomatosis virus ceased to be available (nobody was manufacturing it) in the late 90s, so that control was lifted. There were also a few unusually mild, dry winters in the noughties which permitted better breeding and survival by rabbits during the harshest season (more of that below). And the third reason of course, the one John latches on to, is the removal of cats.

What nonsense - if the rabbits had been at similar numbers in the 1960's  then similar effects on vegetation would have been apparent back then. None were observed. Because I was there at the time I happen to know that all attempts to control rabbit numbers by means of myxomatosis failed. This was because Macquarie is too cold for the usual myxomatosis vector, a mosquito, to breed. Instead a flea was tried but it didn't work. The usual appeal to climate variation is also wrong for the reasons given for Azorella dieback above; there has been nothing unusual about the climate in recent years. If I "latched-on" to the removal of cats, that is because it is the only reasonable explanation for the rabbit plague and a rather obvious one at that.

Where do you biologists obtain the climate data which allows you to make these ridiculous assertions? Does it come from some politically correct computer model somewhere? If so I strongly suggest you abandon this methodology and start using the actual measurements like real scientists do.

As it stands your argument is little more than an expression of Deep Green sentimentality padded out with bad science. It is an excellent example of how  science is corrupted by militant environmentalism. This has implications far beyond the rainy, windswept moorlands of Macquarie Island.



Jeremy Smith's article can be found here

John Reid's original article can be found here


October 2012