Going underground — lessons for suburbia from subterranean Coober Pedy

It is summer in Australia and the temperature is soaring towards the 40s, so you reach for the air-conditioning remote but cringe at the thought of the energy bill come March.

The struggle for energy efficiency in a changing climate and the mental maths of keeping your home comfortable are a dominant point in day-to-day life.

But deep in the South Australian outback is a town that has been dealing with this problem for years.

So, what’s the secret?

Digging down

Coober Pedy is a difficult place to live.

Set on the edge the Stuart Range, the town of 2,000 people sits atop a bed of sandstone glittered with opal, with no topsoil and practically no vegetation.

The average daytime temperature in summer is 37 degrees, but living in a house in such conditions is uncomfortable and expensive.

So, the locals turned to dugouts: underground homes.

Many Coober Pedy residents live underground to avoid the heat.(Flickr: BRJ Inc)

Stephen Berry, manager of the University of SA’s Research Node for Low-Carbon Living, said it was obvious why.

“When you have a building that’s covered in earth or is underground, you effectively get infinite thermal mass,” he said.

“That means the indoor conditions remain remarkably stable — they hardly vary at all.

Despite the temperature edging into the 40s during summer, dugouts in Coober Pedy usually stay between 19 and 25 degrees, which saves residents huge amounts of money on cooling expenses.

So, why aren’t we living underground?

If underground housing has such obvious benefits, why isn’t it more widespread?

Dr Berry said not everywhere was as well suited to building underground as Coober Pedy.

“Coober Pedy is fantastic because it’s soil type allows for relatively easy construction of underground buildings,” he said.

Martin Freney, a lecturer in Sustainable Design at the University of South Australia, said while building underground homes in suburban areas was not impossible, it was extremely difficult.

“You’re essentially digging a big hole and if that’s near neighbouring buildings or fences, there’s the potential for undermining and the collapse of those structures,” Dr Freney said.

“If you want to build a fully underground house, you might get some pushback from the planning officer at council, because it probably won’t comply with the streetscape rules.”

Houses dot along small rolling red dirt hills against a blue-grey background.
Coober Pedy has a mixture of above ground and below-ground housing options.(Supplied: Justin Lang)

The art of compromise

While building underground homes might be difficult, there are alternatives.

Alongside his work as a lecturer, Dr Freney also runs a business that builds a style of house known as an ‘Earthship’.

The Earthship concept was developed by an American architect named Michael Reynolds in the 1970s and was designed as a self-sustaining, off-the-grid house.

Earthship-style buildings are dug slightly into the ground and the rear of the building is covered with an earthen mound and reinforced with a retaining wall made of recycled tyres.

The mound gives the building a high thermal mass: absorbing heat during the day and radiating it at night to keep the temperature consistent.

A white round house is pictured, it has a glass front and is half buried in the ground.
The Earthship design seeks to minimise the earthworks while still getting some of the benefits of living below ground.(Supplied: Allan Bjerre.)

“If you have the mound itself, ideally to the east, south and west, combined with glazed glass facing north and well insulated walls, you can get the benefits of an underground house in suburbia,” Dr Freney said.

But according to Dr Berry, much like entirely underground houses, the Earthship is not without its downsides.

“The earth sheltered concept is a fabulous one, and it’s very useful for particular situations,” Dr Berry said.

“We’re unlikely to see a high number of earth-covered buildings in suburbia … because each type of house isn’t valid in every location.”

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NSW Blues given approval to use training facility and walk through underground tunnel before ANZ Stadium match

Brad Fittler’s Blues have been given clearance to use their centre of excellence as a warm-up facility – despite COVID restrictions – as they try to salvage the State of Origin series at ANZ Stadium.

Even allowing for the enormous disruption to NRL matches and the opening Origin clash in Adelaide due to the pandemic, the game’s biosecurity experts have assessed NSW’s training field and Olympic Park facility before game two on Wednesday night.

It has now been designated as a clean zone, meaning stand-in captain James Tedesco’s first time leading out his state will come at the end of a long walk through an underground tunnel and onto ANZ Stadium.

Coach Brad Fittler has previously spoken of the benefit of being able to use the adjacent facility before home Origin matches, which allows his players to prepare on a full-size field with grass which even replicates ANZ Stadium.

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Dartbrook underground coal mine in NSW Upper Hunter set to reopen after agreement reached

The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) has paved the way for the revival of a mothballed underground coal mine in the New South Wales Hunter Valley for the first time since 2006.

Australian Pacific Coal (AQC) and the IPC reached an agreement in the Land and Environment Court over a development application to resume operations at the Dartbrook mine near Aberdeen.

The company hailed the decision as a “significant milestone” for the recommencement of mining.

But environmental group Lock the Gate has criticised it as “a short-term grab-the-coal and run”.

The mine has been in a care and maintenance phase since 2006, but AQC has moved to restart operations after it purchased the property in 2016.

A development application to mine 6 million tonnes of coal a year through to 2027 was refused by the IPC last year, but AQC immediately appealed in the Land and Environment Court.

The company lodged a 14-page response after the IPC took issue with the detail of the proposal.

The IPC had previously expressed concern about the social impact of resuming operations in an area now dominated by agriculture and the equine industry.

Environmental impacts were also considered, but the company claimed a switch to bord-and-pillar mining would minimise impacts on groundwater.

The Dartbrook coal mine ceased operations in 2006 after three fatalities at the underground mine.(ABC Upper Hunter: Eliza Goetze)

Focus should be outside of coal: environmentalist

Environmental groups painted yesterday’s agreement as a setback in the Upper Hunter region’s push towards a more diverse, post-coal economy.

“The planning system is still putting off the very important, and increasingly urgent job of giving the Hunter new industry outside of coal mining,” said Georgina Woods from the Lock the Gate Alliance.

“It is only proposed to continue for seven years and so it’s not a long-term development that’s going to provide for sustainable employment and growth and prosperity for the Upper Hunter into the future.”

But Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) district president Peter Jordan has championed the agreement as a win for the region.

“It just means jobs, jobs and jobs and who would not want jobs in the area?” he said.

Kirsty O’Connell from Friends of the Upper Hunter said the decision flew in the face of community sentiment.

“We had 1,300 objections last year, the single biggest reaction against a brownfield mining proposal in NSW history,” she said.

The Minerals Council has been contacted for comment.

The Land and Environment Court is expected to finalise its decision later this month.

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To protect this rare underground orchid, researchers are keeping its location top secret

Maree Elliott admitted feeling a bit despondent as she poked around the leaf litter in the Barrington Tops National Park north of Newcastle four years ago.

Ms Elliot, a scientific illustrator, had been looking for a native fungi to draw for her work, but despite hours of searching the 65-year-old retiree was having no luck.

What she stumbled on instead would rewrite scientific literature.

“I got a big stick and I was playing around with the leaf litter, and this lovely pink thing surfaced,” she said.

“I didn’t know what it was, it certainly wasn’t a mushroom or a truffle. It was just a very small, pinky-creamy thing, it was like a half-opened flower bud.”

Ms Elliott said an ecologist in her party “got all excited”, and immediately identified her unusual find as a form of underground orchid — an extremely rare plant that never naturally pokes its head up above the leaf litter.

“I had no idea what it was, it wasn’t until I came home and started doing my own research that I realised that this was an important find,” Ms Elliott said.

Location being kept top secret

While a member of Ms Elliot’s party had identified the flower as an underground orchid, nobody could have predicted just how rare of a find it truly was.

Four years on, the Ms Elliot’s discovery now been confirmed as an entirely new species previously unknown to science.

The flower Maree Elliott discovered while “poking around in leaf litter” in June 2016.(Supplied: Maree Elliott)

Ms Elliot’s find has been described as a once-in-50-year botanical discovery, but one whose location will never likely be openly shared with the public.

“I’m really reluctant to say where it is, because it is an endangered species and the location is private, or under wraps, or secret,” Ms Elliott said.

“It is close to where people would go walking, so I think under the circumstances … it’s our responsibility to protect it I think.”

The cryptic orchid she discovered has now formally been named Rhizanthella speciosa.

Mark Clements, from the National Herbarium in Canberra, recently published his description of the plant in an International Journal on Orchidology.

“It’s probably the most unique orchid on earth, and orchids are the largest family of plants on earth,” Dr Clements said.

“It’s not something I imagined would happen in my lifetime. It’s a really, really fortuitous find.”

Why should we care about something we will never see?

A natural world scientist at work
Dr Mark Clements says the discovery is important for maintaining Australia’s biodoversity.(ABC News: Craig Allen)

Conservation of the underground orchid poses some interesting challenges for ecologists, including how to inspire public passion for a plant that will never likely be seen.

Unlike so-called “flagship” conservation species, like the koala, panda, or lion, which were chosen largely for their public appeal, researchers are worried “ugly” species are valued less in conservation.

But Dr Clements said it was important to conserve these “hidden” species to maintain biodiversity, because they are “distinctly Australian”, and rely on native animals to spread.

“It’s very Australian. It’s the only underground orchid on earth, it occurs in Australia, and we’re pretty lucky to have it,” he said.

“To flower, to grow entirely underground, to produce seed under the leaf litter and then to have a wallaby or bandicoot come and eat its seed, then pass through its gut and move the seed that way.

“All of those things are significant.”

Tracker dogs helping find cryptic orchids

Two dogs in working harnesses in a bushland setting
Taz (left) and Missy (right) are professional detection dogs employed by OWAD Environment consultants.(Supplied: OWAD Environment)

Spurred on by Ms Elliot’s find, researchers from the NSW Department of Environment spent 10 days scouting the forests of Barrington Tops National Park for more underground orchids, without success.

So they enlisted some four-legged plant detectives to help.

Consultants, OWAD Environment, brought in tracker dogs Missy and Taz, and, within 10 minutes, the English springer spaniels had found their first underground orchid.

“It’s a real breakthrough,” Dr Clements said.

“They can train the dog to find the orchid, even when it’s not in flower.

“One of the things that the dogs will enable us to do is look at other potential sites, and see if there are any more.”

A working dog in action finding native flora
Missy indicating she has found the flowering head of a Rhizanthella underground orchid.(Supplied: OWAD Environment)

With the help of the detection dogs, scientists have now geotagged the locations of 39 flowering heads at Barrington Tops, over an area roughly 30 by 20 metres.

Dr Clements said Rhizanthella speciosa was one of only three species of underground orchid on Australia’s east coast, while two species were found in Western Australia.

And he said their scarcity pointed to their vulnerability.

Orchids were once more widespread

Dr Clement said underground orchids could have once covered a large area of Australia.

“We could have lost most of them because of clearing for agriculture, not even knowing they were there,” Dr Clements said.

But he said the Barrington Tops discovery gave hope to researchers that other populations of underground orchids were out there, just waiting for another “lucky find”.

“It would be difficult for me to believe that it’s the only site on earth for that species to occur,” he said.

“It gives you hope that there might be some other ones out there as well.

“There are many people who’d love to see it, but the safest thing to do is not to have it known where it really is. The best protection is not telling people where it is, and not showing them.”

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Photos reveal secret underground base off Hainan Island

The moment a Chinese nuclear submarine slipped out of a secret underground base has been caught by satellite – laying bare the extent of China’s military ambitions.

Just a few pixels on a commercial-grade Earth-observation satellite photograph, it portrays a piece of Hainan Island – a strategically significant 35,400sq km land mass off the south coast of China.

It’s the location of a major naval base – much of it concealed in a bunker built deep under a mountain peninsula. What was captured appears to be two tugboats manoeuvring a nuclear-powered attack submarine out of a camouflaged tunnel.

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The August 18 photo, from commercial satellite service Photo Labs, was spotted by Radio Free Asia (RFA) – a US government-funded international broadcaster based in Washington D.C.

RFA’s Drake Long identified the submarine as one of China’s six modern Type 093 Shang-class attack submarines. Their mission is to hunt and kill other submarines and warships.

It was being backed out of the heavily protected underground facility.

“Given the narrow aperture of the tunnel, you are just asking for trouble for a submarine to leave the tunnel under its own power,” retired USN Captain Christopher Carlson is quoted as saying. “Most people don’t realise submarines manoeuvre like pigs on the surface.”

According to the RFA report, the scene “hints at how China can marshal considerable undersea power on the doorstep of the disputed South China Sea”.

Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island is normally a hive of submarine activity. The most recent image on Google Maps, for example, shows three submarines – two ballistic missile carriers and one smaller attack type – tied up at the open piers.

RELATED: China’s brazen move in South China Sea

In photos from August 18, these are unusually empty.

“All of China’s other submarines normally stationed here are nowhere to be seen – wonder where they went,” Long wrote.


What is or isn’t happening at Hainan Island’s Yulin Naval Base is of extreme importance to all nations embroiled by Beijing’s assertion of ownership over the South China Sea.

US surveillance aircraft, some believed to be carrying advanced imaging radars, have been observed operating in the area in recent weeks.

But while territorial disputes plague the South China Sea, nobody questions the ownership of Hainan Island. Here, China can assemble its forces without the risk of a diplomatic incident.

Sitting at the South China Sea’s northwestern extremity, the vast People’s Liberation Army facility is the key to Beijing enforcing its expansive, arbitrary claim.

Midway between it and Vietnam are the Paracel Islands seized from Hanoi in a short 1974 war.

And at roughly the midway point between Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines – 1150km from Hainan Island – are the artificial island fortresses of the Spratly Islands. Natuna Island, the scene of a clash between Indonesia and China earlier this year, is 1750km away.

Yulin Naval Base means business.

RELATED: Photos reveal new island fortress

Open source satellite images taken during the past two decades reveal Hainan Island has been heavily fortified in that time.

Protecting the 25sq km network of tunnels and submarine facilities are large armoured towers containing anti-ship and anti-air missile launchers. These, with a scattering of point-defence guns, also protect the nearby piers and ammunition-handling facilities.

More substantial piers nearby are designed to support surface ships. China’s two aircraft carriers have docked here, along with an array of destroyers, frigates and support vessels.

Work began on the facility in 2000. It’s not yet complete.

The mountain that dominates Yalong Bay, a 7.5km beach on Hainan, is the centrepiece of China’s nuclear deterrent.

Its earth and stone protect the submarines, crew, weapons and command facilities within. But artificial walls surround its shores. Blast walls isolate individual buildings. Rail lines lead from protected loading facilities into tunnels.

“Any US attempt to strike targets on Hainan Island would only really be practicable in the context of a larger-scale conflict and would require extraordinary effort,” Strategic Sentinel research associate Damen Cook wrote. “Yulin-East’s surface vessels and attack submarines will strengthen China’s position over important regional trade routes and attempt to coerce China’s neighbours into accepting the nine-dash line.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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Banksy goes undercover for coronavirus art on London underground

UK graffiti artist Banksy has gone undercover to paint stealthy lockdown themed messages on London’s underground.

The anonymous graffiti artist posted a video to his Instagram account on Tuesday showing him dressed as a cleaner and entering the tube.

He spray-painted stencils of his trademark rats in various guises, including with surgical masks and spraying sneezes over tube carriage windows.

RELATED: Who is the real Banksy?

It comes after London’s underground bosses announced they would introduce regular cleaning of carriages undertaken by staff wearing full boilersuits that make them almost impossible to recognise.

The video is entitled ‘If you don’t mask – you don’t get’ in reference to the mandatory wearing of masks on the underground. It comes on the same day that masks were made compulsory in shops in England after months of government dithering on the issue.

The playful video finishes with the line “I get locked down, but I get up again” set to the famous Chumbawumba song Tubthumbing.

RELATED: Banksy’s Brexit mural mysteriously disappears

The world-famous street artist has consistently made headlines with his zeitgeist capturing artwork and social commentary.

Recently, he dressed black grime artist Stormzy in a stab-proof vest painted in the Union Jack flag for a headline slot at UK festival Glastonbury.

He made headlines around the world at a Sotheby’s auction where his coveted 2006 piece Girl With Balloon went under the hammer, triggering a shredder that was hidden in the frame to start destroying the artwork.

In fact, it stopped working halfway through leaving the £1.042 million ($A1.9 million) sale potentially more valuable to the buyer.

While several names have been attributed to the elusive street artist, he has never revealed his true identity and the small circle of people who know remain loyal to him.

It’s widely accepted his career began in early 1990s Bristol as part of a street art crew, though he exploded to international fame through exhibitions such as Dismaland and his 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

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Underground water key to quenching region’s thirst

UNDERGROUND water sourced from Alstonville, Newrybar, Tyagarah and Woodburn is part of the water security plan for the Northern Rivers.

Rous County Council this week adopted its draft document called Future Water Project 2060

Integrated Water Cycle Management Plan, to go on public exhibition on July 1.


Plans for a new $245M dam at Dunoon

5 big projects to secure our future water supply

The plan explained a possible Dunoon Dam will take at least nine years to build, so underground water could keep the region hydrated until then and remain as an important source of the element.

The idea includes the reinstatement of bores at Woodburn and Alstonville, plus new borefields at Tyagarah, Newrybar and Alstonville.


This location expands on an existing scheme, licences and land, but has low yield and high cost.

An existing bore supply at Woodburn consists of three bores in the coastal sands aquifer which supplies to the Lower Richmond River supply area (Woodburn, Broadwater, Evans Head and Coraki) during dry periods.

In 2007/08 the borefield produced 46 ML.

The existing borefield has a licence entitlement of 726 ML/a. Bores 1 and 2 were compromised by the development of the Pacific Highway and are no longer used.

Bore 3 has been replaced and is used as an emergency supply.

Water quality was determined to be suitable for drinking water if appropriate treatment is


The concept design for the Woodburn borefield includes four production bores (the existing No. 3 plus three new ones).


Two options for groundwater supply at Newrybar have been identified (north and south) which may be combined to reduce costs.

The groundwater supply from these two sources would be combined with existing supplies to the Knockrow reservoir.

This location means relatively high cost groundwater but high yield, and requires a new


The site would mean the need for brackish water desalination to produce drinking water quality.


Commercial water meter. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star



This location offers relatively low-cost groundwater and high yield, but requires a new

scheme in two parts.

Scheme 1 would transfer the treated groundwater to the Ocean Shores reservoirs and Rous retail customers. Scheme 2 would transfer the water to the St Helena reservoir.

The report suggests initial construction of Scheme 1, with future expansion to include Scheme 2 with an ultimate capacity of 12.5 ML/d.

The future scheme would supply all of the Byron Shire, apart from Bangalow.

Alstonville / Wollongbar

The report explains that the expansion of Marom Creek Water Treatment Plant and the use of Alstonville groundwater is the preferred first action by Rous County Council, as it will achieve the short-term secure yield outcomes required from existing assets owned by the community.

The existing Alstonville borefield consists of two production bores, one at Lumley Park and one at Converys Lane, which extract groundwater from fractured basalt to augment supply during dry periods.

This option proposes that the bore at Lumley Park be retained while the bore at Converys Lane would be replaced with a new bore adjacent to the existing bore.

A new water treatment plan and a transfer pump station and pipeline, to transfer the groundwater to the Wollongbar reservoir, would be required.

The estimated long-term capacity of the two bores is 4.5 ML/d.


A possible Dunoon Dam will take at least nine years to build, so underground water could keep the region hydrated until then.

A possible Dunoon Dam will take at least nine years to build, so underground water could keep the region hydrated until then.



Initial capital costs for the Woodburn plan would cost $36.4 million, while the Integrated

Newrybar plan would reach $63.1 million.

The Tyagarah (Scheme 1) initial capital costs would be around $50.8 million; with further $30.4 million for Tyagarah (Scheme 2).

The Alstonville plan’s total initial capital costs were estimated in the report at $25.9 million.

Implementation of groundwater options will have a lead time of approximately 2.5 to 4.5

years (to allow for additional investigations, approvals and construction).

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