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SMC Bulletin: More earthquakes in 2018?

More earthquakes in 2018?
A report makes headlines around the world, with scientists saying we could be set for more intense earthquakes from next year.

The claim came from US geophysicists Roger Bilham and Rebecca Bendick, initially reported from a conference presentation last month. The Observer reported that periodic slowing of the Earth's rotation was linked to increased numbers of earthquakes magnitude 7 or greater.

Bilham told The Observer that with a periodic slowdown due, from 2018 "we should see a significant increase in the number of severe earthquakes". It was those headlines that screamed around the world on Monday.

However, New Zealand scientists were sceptical that the link was any more than correlation. In a statement, GNS Science said there wasn't enough detail to provide a meaningful comment.

"It is true there have been periods of elevated rates of large earthquakes in the past 100 years. However, if you go looking for correlations with other natural phenomenon, you will almost certainly find some interesting matches."

University of Otago Chair of Earthquake Science Professor Mark Stirling said his research group "does not support the primary conclusion of this article".

"We see it as yet another example of a fortuitous correlation between earthquake occurrence and an unrelated phenomenon."

Dr Virginia Toy, also from the University of Otago, said many people attempt to make statistical correlations between natural events and other phenomena - such as lightning or tides - similar to Ken Ring who writes about apparent correlations between Moon phases and the weather.

"This study… I am sure the statistical correlation is more defendable than Ken Ring’s work. However, it shouldn’t inspire panic. The story has reported the researcher’s statements in a way it sounds like we will get a jump from 6 to 20 large earthquakes per year. I don’t think this is likely."

University of Canterbury lecturer in tectonic geology Dr Tim Stahl said that Bilham and Bendick were respected scientists in their field and he "would look forward to seeing this study in a peer-reviewed journal".

"It is important to note that the authors explicitly state in the abstract that the precise locations, times, or magnitudes of earthquakes cannot be predicted, even if their observations and interpretations are eventually confirmed by other researchers."

Since the initial reports, Rebecca Bendick has clarified her research, telling The Washington Post that she felt "very awful" if people had been alarmed by the sensational headlines.

She said she was okay with the reaction from the scientific community. "Someone says something kind of marginally outlandish, and everyone checks their work and that’s how science progresses."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the media reports.

Quoted: Radio NZ
"People want to improve their living standards, they want to have better education, better health...

"But we can't do it by pretending that there's just an unlimited treasure trove of resources that can be exploited."

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton on
his approach to his new role.

Explaining the bigger picture
New study suggests explaining their work to lay people helps scientists do better research.

The findings, published in the International Journal of Science Education, are music to the ears of the Science Media Centre team, which spends a fair bit of its time encouraging scientists to think beyond their peers to the general public.

As part of the study, science students were asked to write about their work for a non academic audience. It turns out that doing so helped them to discover and discuss different ideas within their thesis, and this in turn, helped them to realise the importance and societal impact of their work.

Says the paper's author, Susanne Pelger from Sweden's Lund University:

"It is not hard to see how communication with different audiences can help scientists find connections to other disciplines and see the societal relevance of their own research. And in this way, training future scientists to communicate with different audiences could help to facilitate research and development across disciplinary borders."

An earlier study also found that getting bachelors and masters students to write a popular science article about their degree project significantly helped them clarify the aims of their project.

Read Dr Pelger's Conversation piece on the research here.

Policy news & developments

Northern Corridor green light: An independent Board of Inquiry has given approval to construct the last link of Auckland's Western Ring Route.

Boost for students: From next year, student allowances and loan entitlements will be boosted by $50 a week.

Mine recovery agency: The Government has set up an agency responsible for re-entry to the Pike River Mine drift.

Myrtle rust spreads: MPI has confirmed the fungal plant disease myrtle rust has been found for the first time in the Auckland region. It was found on ramarama plants on a commercial plant production property.

Family's rare botulism case
Three members of a family struck down with the same symptoms had doctors scratching their heads.
The Waikato family became sick after eating wild boar meat last week but started improving after being given the anti-toxin for botulism.

Massey University's Professor Steve Flint told that botulism - which is caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum - was a rare mystery in New Zealand because we have so few cases.

"We don't have problems as frequently as many other countries do and it's probably due to the types of foods that we eat in New Zealand."

The bacterium can live and multiply quickly in preserved and canned foods and most cases are linked to poorly-processed foods. "To kill off the toxin you need to get much higher than boiling point - you're looking at 120 degrees Celsius," Prof Flint said. But companies like Heinz Watties already boil their food at that temperature.

He said a possible scenario for contamination of the wild boar was if there was soil on the animal's hide that harboured the bacterium. "When you slaughter an animal, the skin of the animal is the main source of contamination of the meat."

Depending on how the meat had been stored after slaughter, the conditions could have allowed the bacterium to grow and produce the neurotoxin.

The Waikato District Health Board has sent samples to a specialist centre in Queensland for testing, but results may take several weeks. In the meantime, the family have been responding to botulism anti-toxin.

In 2013, there was a scare when Fonterra testing detected botulism in whey protein concentrate, but further testing showed it was Clostridium sporogenes, which can spoil food but poses no human health risk.

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