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SMC Heads-Up to 20 October: The Rena science special

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Salvage experts will spend the weekend attempting to remove fuel oil from the stricken container ship Rena in an attempt to limit the environmental impact of further leaks from the ship’s tanks.

Issue 154 October 14 – 20

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Rena salvage enters critical phase
Salvage experts will spend the weekend attempting to remove fuel oil from the stricken container ship Rena in an attempt to limit the environmental impact of further leaks from the ship’s tanks.

Naval architects spoken to by the SMC say that predicting an outcome to the immediate salvage operation is extremely difficult as factors such as the extent of flooding in the ship’s hull, the nature of internal structural damage and the weather, will all play a part in determining if it is possible to remove a significant among of fuel oil in the coming days.

The prospect of the ship breaking up and the tanks sinking intact is very real – there are numeorus international examples of oil being bumped from tanks on the sea floor.

“A ship could break in two and not leak oil from the fuel tanks,” Professor Nigel Barltrop, the John Elder Chair of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at the University of Strathclyde told the SMC.

“This will depend on where the tanks are.”

Science has played a broad role in the response to the Rena crisis, in everything from determining the effectiveness of dispersants to analysing wind, wave and currents to estimate the spread of oil and the compromised integrity of Rena‘s superstructure.

While experts advising Maritime New Zealand expect the ship to break up, the size of sea swells will determine how quickly this happens.

“The ship is supported over part of its bottom and the water is not providing the usual support to the bow and stern so the static forces will be tending to bend the ship. In addition the waves will be causing changing forces that will tend to grow cracks,” added Professor Barltrop.

Need for environmental monitoring

Meanwhile, a range of scientists from Massey University are leading the oiled wildlife response team based in Tauranga, which is dealing with birds and marine mammals who have been caught in Rena‘s oil slick. Less obvious than the oil-stained beaches, but equally as important, is the impact on the coastal ecosystem.

“Maketu and adjacent Waihi estuaries were two systems identified as being particularly vulnerable for the most part due to their cultural significance, food source importance for iwi and local resdients and also because of the high abundance and diversity of estuarine bird life seasonally present,” said the University of Waikato’s Professor Chris Battershill, who the inaugural Chair in Coastal Science for the Bay of Plenty and based in Tauranga.

In the same way that intensive environmental monitoring is underway in the Gulf of Mexico nearly 18 months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to gauge the impacts on coastal ecosystems, ongoing monitoring will be undertaken in the coastal Bay of Plenty.

“Given the paucity of information pertaining to how New Zealand species respond to current petrochemical industry related products, there is also a clear need for new research in the eco-toxicology of pollutants utilising relevant experimental procedures. This will no doubt be a focus of future work for the tertiary education agencies in the region and others,” said Professor Battershill.

Oil eating bacteria?
The black tide of contamination pouring from the container ship Rena, in New Zealand’s biggest fuel oil spill, may yet offer a silver lining in terms of knowledge to be gained by the nation’s scientists and researchers.

Two quite different American oil spills — Alaska’s Exxon Valdez grounding in 1989, and Louisiana’s BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 — both highlighted the environmental clean-up provided by micro-organisms able to “eat” petroleum hydrocarbons. In both those spills, bacteria and other micro-organisms played a significant role in reducing the overall environmental impacts.

Half the world’s total oil “spills” have been estimated to come from natural seeps such as those at New Plymouth’s Ngamotu Beach, which triggered the nation’s first commercial exploration. Microbes which degrade hydrocarbons are widespread in the environment — partly because algae and cyanobacteria of the type used to produce biodiesel also produce similar alkanes and aromatic compounds.

Researchers say the Rena spill provides an opportunity for a natural experiment by scientists such as those at Auckland University and Landcare Research with who already have a track record of investigating microbes breaking down hydrocarbons in Antarctic soils.

The SMC asked scientists whether “bio-augmentation” such introducing oil-eating bacteria from natural oil seeps, or adding nutrients could boost the biodegradation of oil in the polluted areas.

The SMC issued a number of expert round-ups during the week which you can find here. The SMC will be on call over the weekend to help out journalists looking for areas of expertise. Contact SMC manager Peter Griffin on 021 859 365 if you need assistance.

On the science radar

Erasing history, barking piranhas, sexually jumbled toads, oldest rodent discovered, harmonising mosquitoes and free trip across mars.
Quoted: New Zealand Herald

“We haven’t completed all of the science yet, but we refer to it as the red stuff,

“The fungi is taking its nutrition and fundamentally modifying it at a molecular level and turning it into something we haven’t seen before; it’s fascinating.

“You can go on to our website and see me eating it – I didn’t have a fit and die on the floor”

Stephen Ford
Technical director at Crop Solutions, on their fungi-based insect spray.

New from the SMC
Experts respond:

More synthetic cannabinoids banned – Experts comment on the use of new drug legislation to quickly ban more emerging psychoactive substances thought to be on the brink of being marketed as “legal highs”.

Australian ETS bill passed in lower house:
The Australian government’s emissions trading legislation has passed its first hurdle in becoming law. Experts contacted by the AusSMC provide analysis.
Reflections on science:

Hansen on climate communications: An article published in the New Zealand Herald highlights the battle between scientists and sceptics, with NASA scientist James Hansen noting that increasing scientific evidence is competing with industry spin.

Nanotech risks require regulation: A new opinion article in Cosmos magazine examines nanotechnology regulation – an issue which was the focus of a recent NZ government report.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

Deepak Chopra “reviews” The Magic of Reality – Michael Edmonds reviews the reviews of Richard Dawkins latest book, noting that pseudoscience pundits are not too enthralled.
Molecular Matters

Carrots for my neighbour – Grant Jacobs weaves a tale of genetics and history centred around the orange pointy vegetable – which wasn’t always so orange and pointy.
Code for Life

Giant squids and a bit of a giggle – Did ancient giant squids play with their food? Amiee Whitcroft looks at one hypothesis explaining some oddly arranged fossils.

Approaching morality scientifically – Can scientists explain morality, or is it best left to the theolgians? Ken Perrott gets to the bottom of the debate.
Open Parachute

Research highlights

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

Drowning sorrows: When the economy is down, alcohol consumption goes up, according to US researchers who say they have found a connection between macroeconomic conditions and
excessive alcohol drinking. Even people who retain their jobs have more binge drinking days and are more likely to drive after having too much to drink during a bad economy.
Health Economics

Folate supplements and language impairment: Use of folic acid supplements by women around the time of conception is associated with a reduced risk of the child having severe language delays, according to a new research from Norway. The study, which involved almost 40,000 children, will have important implications for policies of folic acid supplementation for women of reproductive age. New Zealand has deferred a decision mandatory folate supplementation until May 2012.

Agro-terrorism the real threat in US – NZ professor: Threats to human health may seem a lot more terrifying than hazards to agriculture, but proportionally more investment in better border biosecurity has the potential to bring greater dividends to society than much of the current investment in biodefense countermeasures. Writing in the leading international journal Science, Lincoln University Professor Philip Hulme says that since the widespread panic caused by the 2001 anthrax mailings, the United States has invested billions of dollars in research and development of biodefense countermeasures, but that these funds could be better invested.

The pill’ affects partner choice: Researchers have examined how the use of hormone-affecting oral contraceptives affects a woman’s choice in partner. In a study of several thousand woman, they found that women who were on the pill when they meet their partner are less sexually satisfied or attracted to their partners but more satisfied with other aspects of the relationship and so less likely to separate. The authors conclude: “So there is both good news and bad news for women who meet their partner while on the pill. One effect seems to compensate for the other.”
Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Ancient art studio unearthed: In South Africa, researchers have discovered a 100,000-year-old workshop that was apparently used by early humans to make, mix and store ochre — the earliest form of paint. The scientists found the ancient art studio was littered with hammers and grindstones for making ochre powder as well as sea shells which had been used to store the paint. The new findings demonstrate that early humans in Africa already had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning.

Reversing smoke-induced damage: By studying mice exposed to tobacco smoke for a period of months, researchers have new insight into how emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) develops. They also report a promising new way to reverse the lung damage underlying these conditions. In a mouse model of smoking, the activity an enzyme, nitric oxide synthase, was linked to smoking related lung damage. A pharmacological inhibitor of this enzyme – which can be inhaled and has been previously tested in humans – prevented and even reversed lung damage in the ‘smoking’ mice.

Black death ‘mother of all plagues’: A draft sequence of the Yersinia pestis genome has been reconstructed using DNA extracted from victims of the Black Death. Comparative analysis of medieval and contemporary Y. pestis DNA suggests that the Black Death microbe is the ancestor of modern Y. pestis epidemics. The research also noted that there were no obvious genetic factors that could explain the assumed extreme virulence of the Black Death, indicating that non-genetic factors – such as the environment, vector dynamics and host susceptibility – hade an important role in emerging Y. pestis infections.
Policy updates

Some of the highlights of this week’s policy news:

PCE annual report out – The office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has released its annual report, 25 years after the creation of the role was first debated in Parliament.

Cancer costs reported – The Ministry of Health has published a new report, The Price of Cancer, examining cancer related costs. More than half a billion dollars a year is spent by the public health service on diagnosing and treating cancer.
Upcoming sci-tech events
NZ Clean Energy Expo – 13 -16 October, Taupo.
Nerd Nite: Tell Us a Story – Victoria University’s first story-telling competition for science graduates – pain and passion in 7 minute bites – 17 October, Wellington.
Organisational effectiveness in times of seismic risk: forum – Lessons in resilience from the issues faced by businesses in Christchurch – 18 October, Wellington.
Influenza: The evolving threatWellington’s Other Battle From Historical Influenza Remedies to the Latest Surveillance Strategies with Mass Spectrometry, 18 October, Wellington.
Climate change, population growth and water intensity – Nigel Taptiklis on scenarios and pathways for shaping Wellington’s water future – 20 October, Wellington
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.


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