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SMC Heads-Up: 'Big Dry' continues, whales, NZ's capacity

SMC Heads-Up: 'Big Dry' continues, whale strandings and NZ's capacity for people
Issue 222 15-21 March 2013

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Drought declared across North Is.
A state of drought has been officially declared throughout the entire North Island by the Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy.
The declaration allows farmers access to assistance payments and provides extra funding to Rural Support trusts.

"This is a difficult time for rural families and they need to know that the Government and all New Zealanders are behind them," said Mr Guy.

Fortunately some respite appears to be on the way. Met Service Meteorologist Daniel Corbett has noted that an approaching trough from the Tasman Sea "is likely to bring rain to most places by the end of the weekend".

The expected rainfall will not be enough to make up the large rainfall deficits in many places but it will be a "good step in the right direction".

Climate connection
A drought Q&A on the ministry website includes the question: "Is it true that we can expect more droughts because of climate change?" The answer provided doesn't pull any punches:

"In short, yes."

The role of climate change has not been overlooked in coverage of the drought conditions, with a flurry of media reports exploring the issue more closely earlier in the week. Two recent op-ed articles from climate scientists (Jim Salinger and James Renwick) also highlight the increased potential for future droughts with warming global temperature.

"The message is clear: nature is showing the trend towards a future where major droughts are more common," concludes Dr Salinger's article in the NZ Herald.

"Those involved in land based industries will need to adapt their decisions and management to fit the trends towards more water and soil moisture deficiency in a warmer world."

A picture paints a thousand words
Both the Dominion Post and the New Zealand Herald have featured satellite images comparing the currently parched North Island with greener pastures from this time last year.

On the science radar...
Mars moisture, fungi plastics, antibiotic apocalypse, mummified heart problems, and the rise of the twitter tribes.
What is NZ's sustainable population?
This question is at the core of two emerging issues papers released today by the Royal Society of New Zealand. And the answer is far from simple.
Seeking to move past the simple dichotomy of economy vs environment, the papers highlight the complex links between the differing values of New Zealanders and the trade-offs we must make in terms of wellbeing, the economy and environment.

The first paper, The Sustainable Carrying Capacity of New Zealand, examines the how living standards, lifestyles, income, well-being, and environmental impact interact for New Zealanders. The concept of 'carrying capacity' is also raised; what population of people can the country sustainably support?

The paper ultimately concedes that complexities around wellbeing, technology and sustainability mean "defining an upper human population density for New Zealand's sustainable carrying capacity with any precision is not possible, although it must be considered in analyses of the ecological future of New Zealand."

The second paper, Constraints to New Zealand's Sustainable Wellbeing, explores a number of areas where the issue of sustainability is a factor and that might constrain our ability to create ever-more well-being: climate change, food production, water quality, native biodiversity, transport and fisheries.

The Society's Chief Executive, Dr Di McCarthy, summed up the issue stating, "The use of our land, water and other resources, and our levels of well being and prosperity are not simple tradeoffs between the economy and the environment. Instead, the relationships are complex and interwoven."

The emerging issues papers were launched at a discussion seminar this afternoon in Wellington.

Whale strandings not a family affair
New research questions the theory that mass whale strandings are the result of family members coming to the aid of their beached kin.

One of the leading hypotheses as to why whales strand in groups relies on family ties; when one whale beaches, family members are also drawn into the shallows as they attempt to rescue it.

Now a new study published today in the Journal of Heredity questions this explanation, using genetic data to describe the kinship of individual long-finned pilot whales involved in mass strandings in New Zealand and Tasmania. Researchers from New Zealand, the US and Australia analysed genetic links between samples from almost 500 stranded whales.

They found that stranded groups are not necessarily members of one extended family, evidence that contradicts the hypothesis that stranding groups all descend from a single ancestral mother. Further, many stranded calves were found with no mother in evidence.

"If kinship-based social dynamics were playing a critical role in these pilot whale strandings, first, we would expect to find that the individuals in a stranding event are, in fact, all related to each other," explained lead author Marc Oremus of the University of Auckland.

The results of this study have important implications for rescue efforts aimed at "refloating" stranded whales. "Often, stranded calves are refloated with the nearest mature females, under the assumption that this is the mother," explained co-author Scott Baker from Oregon State University.

"Well-intentioned rescuers hope that refloating a mother and calf together will prevent re-stranding. Unfortunately, the nearest female might not be the mother of the calf. Our results caution against making rescue decisions based only on this assumption."
You can listen to a Radio NZ interview with Prof Baker here, and information on whale strandings in New Zealand can be found at

Quoted: Marlborough Express

"So it's time to stop arguing about climate change and instead start making plans about how we are going to manage it"

- Editorial on current drought conditions

Take your science to the Gulf
The Edinburgh International Science Festival (EISF) is looking for potential shows, workshops and exhibitions to take to the Middle East.

After two highly successful years working with the Abu Dhabi Science Festival, festival organisers are looking internationally for anyone with an engaging science event which could be operated in the Gulf Region (Sep-Dec 2013).

If you think you have a science event, exhibit or performance to take to the Abu Dhabi Science Festival, have a look at the festival's call for applications.

New from the SMC

In the news:

Penguin plight: Scientist are concerned for the survival of yellow-eyed penguin populations in Otago following the deaths of more 50 of the birds from an as-yet-unidentified toxin or disease.

The big dry: Scientists have offered insight on the current drought conditions and outlook for the future. Read a round up of media coverage.

Reflections on Science:

Callaghan Innovation: Radio NZ's Mary Wilson examines the fledgling science body Callaghan Innovation, asking some tough questions.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Antarctic voyage: Back in Wellington - The scientists and crew onboard the RV Tangaroa return from their expedition to Antarctic waters, concluding weeks of daily blogging.
Field Work

Water governance and the RMA - Steve Couper, President of Water New Zealand, asks some tough questions about how the Resource Management Act looks after the country's water.

Happy WKD - In honour of World Kidney Day John Pickering offers some well wishes as well highlightig some fresh developments in the world of nephrology.
Kidney Punch

Bill English's weasel words on weather, climate and drought - Gareth renowden calls Bill English out on some fast and loose climate talk in the chambers of parliment.
Hot Topic

Trusting Secret Data: Dunedin edition - Eric Crampton notes further criticism of the Dunedin Longitudinal study's causal cannabis-IQ link and calls for opening up the data.

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Facebook 'likes' a giveaway: New research shows that surprisingly accurate estimates of Facebook users' race, age, IQ, sexuality, personality, substance use and political views can be inferred from automated analysis of only their Facebook Likes - information currently publicly available by default. For example, the study found liking 'Kurt Cobain' was associated with neuroticism and liking 'curly fries' was oddly linked to high IQ.

Smart phone game brain boost: Playing smart phone games for an hour each day can improve subsequent performance on cognitive tasks that use similar mental processes, according to a new study the examined five different iPhone games (e.g Bejewelled 2, The Sims 3). Though previous studies have reported that action games can improve cognitive skills, this is the first study to show that different skills can be improved by playing different games.

Quitting benefits tip the scales: Quitting smoking has been known to lead to weight gain -- is smoking cessation trading one heart disease risk for another? The answers is no, according to new research. Among adults without diabetes, quitting smoking, compared with continuing smoking, is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease despite subsequent weight gain, according to a new study of over 3,000 participants.

Coronavirus weak spot?: A novel respiratory illness caused by the human coronavirus hCoV-EMC (not be confused with the similar London 2012 virus) has infected over 10 people to date, of which around half have died as a result of infection. Now new research has identified a protein that allows the virus to infect human cells and may be the key to therapeutic opportunities to combat infections.

Roller derby microbe mixup: Scientist have examined how and to what extent microbes get passed from person to person through physical contact -- at an interstate roller derby competition. The researchers found that before competing, teams from different states exhibited very different microbial make ups. However, after a day for fighting it out on the track, the skin bacteria populations were similar between teams, offering insights in to how diseases can spread through skin contact.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Callaghan CEO: Dr Mary Quin has been announced as the inaugural Chief Executive of Callaghan Innovation.

Chch innovation precinct: The government is seeking firms interested in getting in on the groundfloor of a planned Christchurch Innovation Precinct, issuing a request for proposals this week.

Upcoming sci-tech events
Evolution of Human Languages - Public lecture series from Mark Pagel (UK) - 15 March, Wellington; 18, Dunedin; 20, Christchurch.
Brain Day - supported by the Neurological Foundation of NZ - 16 March, Auckland & Dunedin.
Butterflies Conference - 16-17 March, Auckland.
The sights and smells of close relationships - Lecture from Prof Jon Maner (US) - 20 March, Dunedin.
The Ultimate Balancing Act - Sustainability panel discussion chaired by Kim Hill - 20 March, Lincoln.
Sugar and human health, a controversy revisited yet again - Public lecture from Dr Lisa Te Morenga and Prof Jim Mann - 21 March, Dunedin.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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