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Science Deadline: Larsen C iceberg breaks away...

Antarctica's newest iceberg
After months of speculation, a trillion-tonne iceberg has calved off Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf.

NASA/John Sonntag

News broke on Wednesday night that sometime in the past few days the iceberg had broken away, after UK scientists had been monitoring a rift in the ice shelf that had been growing over the southern summer.

Swansea University's Professor Adrian Luckman, who led the team monitoring the crack, cautioned that it was too early to definitively blame the calving of the ice shelf on human-generated climate change. He said the event "may simply be a rare but natural occurrence".

Niwa marine physicist Dr Natalie Robinson agreed that the event was a 'normal', albeit relatively large, calving event.

"There appears to be no evidence that the Larsen C has been subject to the surface melt that led to the rapid and very dramatic collapse of Larsen B. The fact that the Larsen C is able to calve such an enormous, contiguous piece of ice, is more indicative of it being in pretty good health, rather than the opposite."

University of Otago Professor Christina Hulbe talked to Newshub to bust some of the myths around the iceberg, including that New Zealanders won't be seeing iceberg fragments in our seas (the ice shelf is on the Antarctic Peninsula, on the Atlantic side of the continent).

In a Q&A with the NZ Herald, Victoria University of Wellington's Associate Professor Nancy Bertler said the newest iceberg was the sixth largest ever recorded, and represented about 13 per cent of the Larsen C ice shelf area.

She said while the was correct to say the process was natural, there was concern because the Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest-warming region on the planet and had already seen the catastrophic collapse of ice shelves in the area.

"It is still unclear, whether the iceberg destabilised the Larsen C ice shelf. If it initiated the Larsen C breakup - then that breakup would almost certainly lead to the acceleration of ice flow of the glaciers behind the ice shelf into the ocean," Dr Bertler said.

As for what happens next for the iceberg, University of Otago's Professor Pat Langhorne said given it's mid-winter in the Southern Ocean, the sea ice around the iceberg might help to "pin" it in place until the sea ice starts decreasing in November.

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the calving event.

2000 years of climate data

This week also saw the publication of an update to the PAGES2k database, the most complete record of climate data dating from 1AD.

Associate Professor Nancy Bertler contributed three ice core records from the Ross Sea region, which she said was a particularly climate-sensitive area of the Antarctic.

"The database gathers information on past temperature based on evidence from a number of sources including tree rings, corals, glacier ice, and marine and lake sediments," she said.

“It’s the most comprehensive collection of information on global temperature change ever, and has taken over three years to pull together.”

The data is open access and is available for anyone to download and use.


"We must take action soon otherwise our native alpine plant communities are likely to suffer dramatic changes with ongoing warming and increasing human activity in mountain regions."
Lincoln University's Professor Philip Hulme on research showing weeds are likely to spread up mountainsides in a warming climate.

A vaccine for gonorrhoea?
Finally, we're catching a bit of a break in the battle against drug-resistant diseases, with a vaccine shown to give some protection against gonorrhoea.

Last week, the World Health Organization warned that untreatable strains of gonorrhoea were on the rise worldwide. So it was opportune timing for this week's publication in The Lancetthat showed a meningococcal vaccine used in New Zealand a decade ago provided some protection against the disease.

Led by University of Auckland's Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, the study looked at what happened following a national immunisation campaign.

Between 2004 and 2008, New Zealand was in the grips of a Group B meningococcal epidemic when a tailor-made vaccine (MeNZB) was developed and given to over a million Kiwis. A surprising side-effect at the time was that gonorrhoea rates appeared to decline immediately following the vaccination.

Dr Petousis-Harris wrote on The Conversation that while similar vaccines in Cuba and Norway also appeared to have an effect, New Zealand was well placed to test whether the observation could be proven.

Given the two diseases are caused by related bacteria – Neisseria gonnorhoeae and Neisseria meningitides – it seemed plausible, Dr Petousis-Harris wrote.

The Lancet study looked at more than 14,000 people and found those who had received the vaccination were significantly less likely to have gonorrhoea than those who didn’t. The estimated 31 per cent effectiveness might not sound like much, Dr Petousis-Harris wrote, but models suggest it is enough to decrease the prevalence of gonorrhoea significantly within 15 years.

And while the MeNZB vaccine is no longer available, the antigens have been included in other vaccines.

The publication garnered a lot of media attention worldwide.

Policy news & developments

Regional research institutes: Two more proposals have been accepted for research insitutes in the regions. The West Coast will get a minerals research institute and Tauranga will have a horticultural institute.

Predator Free projects: Three projects have been funded through the newly-formed Predator Free 2050 Ltd, which will look at rat pesticides, rat lures and sensitivity of native birds to PAPP baits.

Flu immunised: 1.2 million people have been immunised with the seasonal flu vaccine so far this year.

Women in Science Wikipedia Workshop

Royal Society Te Apārangi and Victoria University of Wellington are hosting a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to add and improve articles on women in New Zealand science.

A Wikipedia workshop is an all-day event where people improve Wikipedia’s coverage of a particular topic. Led by an experienced Wikipedia editor, participants learn to create and edit pages, correct mistakes, add references, and upload photos.

Complete beginners are welcome; training and troubleshooting is provided.

Details: 10am-4pm Sunday 6 August, Royal Society Te Apārangi, 11 Turnbull St, Thorndon, Wellington. Learn more on how to prepare and register.

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