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SMC Heads-Up: Mountains, dairy and your science ideas for 14

Issue 263 17 - 23 Jan 2014

2014: The big science-related issues
The SMC is gearing up for another busy year, one in which science-related issues look set to feature ever more prominently on the news agenda.

We are currently lining up our press briefing schedule for 2014 and considering what issues we should focus on. We'd love your input into our decision making!

Whether you are a scientist, communications manager, journalist or simply enjoy reading the SMC Heads-Up newsletter, we'd love to hear your ideas.

What issues do you think deserve more in-depth science coverage? What has the media overlooked or could do examining further.

What research papers and studies are coming down the line in 2014 here and abroad that we should be ready for? Click on the link below to send us your feedback - anonymously if you'd prefer.

We appreciate your input, which will allow us to deliver a strong set of services for the media in 2014...


On the science radar this week...
3D graphene, spacecraft wake-up, quilt plots, killer jumping fish, GM chick sexing, Aoraki shrinks.
Of science and the Southern Alps
The Southern Alps are acting as a massive carbon sink with weathering of the mountain chain turning rock into soil and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in the process.

A paper published in Science this week and featuring the research of Lincoln University's Isaac Larsen and Andre Eger, found that rock in the Southern Alps is being transformed into soil twice as fast as previously though.

That's due to the fast rate of mountain uplift in the alps - over one centimetre per year, and vegetation on the slopes contributing to weathering of the rock.

As the Press science reporter Sarah-Jane O'Conner reported:

"By measuring the amount of Beryllium-10, an isotope that only forms at the Earth's surface, Larsen and his colleagues showed soil was being produced on the ridge tops at rates between 0.1 millimetres and 0.25mm a year.

"The peak rate was more than twice what had been previously suggested as the "speed limit" for soil production."

Meanwhile, a team of scientists from the University of Otago have published research that revises the height of Aoraki/Mt. Cook.

The country's tallest peak has dropped in height by 30 metres to 3724m following a major rock ice collapse at the summit in 1991.

Morgan on water quality and climate
Economist and philanthropist Gareth Morgan has delved into the issue of water quality and dairying in a two-part New Zealand Herald series co-authored with Morgan Foundation writer and researcher Geoff Simmons.

The pieces were published as the Ministry for the Environment invited submissions on proposed amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. Submissions close on February 4.

It also follows publication of a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, that details how a shift from sheep and beef farming to dairying has lead to increased leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus into waterways which in turn causes excessive growth of weeds and algae, choking waterways. The SMC rounded up reaction to that report here.

"Let's be clear up front; we aren't blaming the farmers," the Morgan and Simmons write in the first installment of the Herald series, going on to say that like bankers during the global financial crisis, farmers "are just responding to the incentives the market presents them".

The pair outline the physical nature of the problem faced with dairy intensification:

"It all starts with cow pee. Sure fertiliser can be a problem if applied excessively or at the wrong times, but in the main it's not the culprit. Rather it is cow pee - a simple urine splash from a cow is a massive concentration of nitrogen, equivalent to 1000kg of nitrogen per hectare. This is too much for pasture plants to take up by far. Given dairy cows pee a lot and over time the nitrogen seeps down through the soil to find its way into rivers and groundwater, the consequence from higher stocking rates are obvious."

In the second part, Morgan and Simmons propose a solution - a nutrient budget for farmers, who they believe, should also pay for the water they use to irrigate their land. They conclude:

"What the Commissioner for the Environment's report says is that the mitigation efforts farmers are making will not stop the rot, more and more cows is an environmental disaster. What we would say is the market structures around dairying are what's driving that quest for more cows - a level playing field would sort that and while on-farm investment would become less attractive, downstream investment would take up any slack."

Balance in climate coverage

Meanwhile, Morgan has penned a column slamming former MP and Herald on Sunday columnist Rodney Hide for his scientifically flawed take on climate change.

A January 5 column by Hide suggested historians look back on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition vessel becoming stuck in Antarctic sea ice over Christmas, as "the trigger that finally ended the public fear of global warming".

Wrote Hide: "The expedition's story now is that global warming melted a big iceberg creating the ice that trapped them. That's the climate alarmists' nuttiness in a nutshell: nothing proves them wrong; everything proves them right".

But Morgan, who delved into climate science in researching his book Poles Apart, was unimpressed:

"Temperature hasn't risen since 1997 - climate is a long-term phenomenon. Carefully selected start and finish years can always show something different, but the long-term trend is of rising temperature. As mentioned, no trained scientists are questioning this, just Hide and the losers that took NIWA to court to question their results - and lost".

Morgan goes on to argue argue that media coverage of climate change should represent the balance of evidence on the issue, rather than giving scientists and sceptics equal space:

"More of our media should follow the lead of the BBC which, in order to protect its own reputation for quality, has moved towards depicting climate change stories in a way that reflects the scientific opinion. That means the 3% of qualified scientists who are sceptical get 3% of the attention. That's called balance, and as a result Rodney would only be able to publish stuff he's actually researched".
Quoted: TVNZ - ONE News

"There are also strains of it that have really nasty toxins and require very few organisms to make you very, very, very sick"

Auckland University microbiologist
Siouxsie Wiles on E. coli contamination
Herald's summer focus on science
The Herald recently ran a series of articles exploring 'Science that will change our lives', authored by science reporter Jamie Morton.

The six-part series highlighted a number of research projects currently underway around the country, whose discoveries are affecting our lives. The topics ranged from developing molecules to fight viruses, to tackling poor nutrition, and something about clothes.

The series starts off with a look at New Zealand's obesity epidemic, and research that is finding ways to improve nutrition. The 5-year international collaborative study is being lead by University of Auckland Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchuis, which will be using a smartphone application to test nutrition labelling on Kiwi household shoppers' purchasing behaviour.

Massey University senior Lecturer Dr Austen Ganley has been further unravelling the human genome, revisiting areas which were left unfinished when the sequence was originally released more than 10 years ago. The findings have opened up new areas for exploring potential causes of cancer.

The series also covers a 'biological paint' which has been developed by AUT's Professor Steve Henry, and is expected to be used in all diagnostic laboratories around the world within a decade.

The HIT Lab's Dr Mark Billinghurst talks augmented reality developments such as Google Glass and Otago University Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne explains research looking into children's memory. Dr Benjamin O'Brien, from the University of Auckland looks at and advances in controlling artificial muscles and wearable technology.

Policy news and developments

Shark plan released: A revised timeline for the sharkfinning ban and a new national plan of action for sharks have been made public.

Legal high rules: A code of manufacturing practice for makers of psychoactive substances comes into force today.

R&D grants awarded: 31 businesses will receive $140m over three years in research and development grants through Callaghan Innovation.
New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Australia swelters: As extreme heat swamps regions of Australia and bushfires threaten, experts comment on health and emergency factors during the heatwave.

Caffeine boosts memory: Does caffeine enhance learning and long-term memory? Experts respond.

In the News:

Fonterra recall: Contamination of cream with food-poisoning bacteria E. coli sparked a product recall in the lower North Island.
Whale stranding recap: Rescue efforts to save pilot whales in a mass stranding in Golden Bay failed when the animals returned repeatedly to shallow waters. We look back at a 2010 SMC briefing to ask: why do whales strand?

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

Shooting rhinos to save them - Brendan Moyle discusses the controversial practice of trophy hunting endangered species to fund raise for conservation.
Chthonic Wildlife Ramblings
Fonterra's bad cream - A Q&A on E. coli, food safety and the dairy giant's product recall from Siouxsie Wiles.
Infectious Thoughts
Post-quake sea-level rise - Gareth Renowden dissects a new report on Christchurch's recent subsidence and rising seas, alongside new evidence that Antarctica's Pine Island glacier heading for runaway melt .
Hot Topic

Why I study bees - Genes, plasticity and evolution -- how Peter Dearden got hooked on honeybees.
Southern Genes

Research highlights
Some of the research papers making headlines this week.

Fast-rising mountains fight climate change: Tectonic forces lift NZ's Southern Alps at one of the fastest rates of any mountains in the world. Scientists studying soil weathering -- the process by which carbon is removed from the air and locked away in dirt -- have found this also happens more rapidly in the Alps than anywhere previously studied. Their results overturn earlier ideas that rapid erosion prevents such mountains from acting as carbon sinks, and has implications for climate scientists' stock take of global carbon.

Migrating bird patterns: Birds flying in "V"-shaped formation adjust their position and time the beating of their wings with a degree of precision previously thought too complex to manage, international research has found. The carefully orchestrated patterns, observed for the first time in wild, migrating birds, are thought to reduce the birds' energy costs and indicate that birds have a remarkable awareness of and ability to sense or predict the patterns of air turbulence caused by nearby flock-mates.

Cervical cancer in older women: A UK study suggests that screening women for cervical cancer beyond age 50 clearly saves lives and adds there are benefits for women with negative screening results to continue screening up to the age of 69 years.
PLOS Medicine

Crayfish need no-take zones to flourish: Research in Wellington's Taputeranga Marine Reserve shows that rock lobster, historically four times more abundant and a keystone species on the South Coast, are likely to bounce back under the reserve's total protection from fishing -- but their recovery process is predicted to take as long as 40 years. The authors say that while the area's lobster fishery is well-managed and sustainable from a single-species perspective, their results show that total lobster numbers have dropped low enough to have major impacts on the wider temperate reef ecosystem, and no-take marine reserves are essential to reverse this.
Ecological Modeling
Endocrine-disrupting chemical swap: A US partial ban on phthlates -- plastic softening chemicals that have been linked to hormonal and developmental disturbances -- has had some potentially undesirable knock-on effects. Researchers studying exposures to phthlates over a decade have found significantly lower rates of exposure for both banned versions of the chemicals (DEHP, BBzP, DnBP) and those targeted by consumer advocacy groups (DEP), but much higher rates for lesser-known phthlates that industry has now begun using as substitutes, whose health effects remain largely unstudied.
Environmental Health Perspectives

Upcoming sci-tech events
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.
Australasian Computer Science Week - Multi-conference with thirteen associated conferences and workshops - 20-23 January, Auckland.
Teaching, Science & Society - Engaging students in the ethics of science through film, art and discussion - 22-23 January, Dunedin.
Treasuring the Bay - Coastal economics symposium - 24 January, Tauranga
Bioethics conference - "New questions, new answers" -24-26 January, Dunedin

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