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SMC Heads-Up: Pacific climate threat, euthanasia & rena

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Australian scientists today released a new report on climate change in the Pacific detailing rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and drastic implications for coral-based eco-systems from growing ocean acidity.SMC Heads-Up to 1 December: Pacific climate threat, euthanasia debate & researching Rena.

Issue 160 November 25 – December 1
Climate change: tough times for Pacific
Australian scientists today released a new report on climate change in the Pacific detailing rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and drastic implications for coral-based eco-systems from growing ocean acidity.

“The Pacific is getting hotter, sea-levels are rising, rainfall is changing, and equatorial winds have weakened,” said researcher, Australian Bureau of Meteorology senior principal scientist, Dr Scott Power. “Further sea-level rises in response to human-forced warming appear inevitable”. But the magnitude of these changes could be mitigated if greenhouse gas levels were reduced.

The peer-reviewed report, Climate Change in the Pacific: Scientific Assessment and New Research involved more than 100 Australian and Pacific island researchers and is the first time a comprehensive country-specific assessment has been conducted for 15 nations, including the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, the Solomon Islands,, Marshall Islands, PNG, East Timor, and Vanuatu. The 530-page report will be presented at the Conference of the Parties (COP17) meeting in Durban starting next week — where the incoming New Zealand government is expected to rush a Climate Change Minister immediately after this weekend’s election.

The report today warned many people on Pacific Islands were facing serious and immediate challenges from climate change, which included tough times for for economic activities, such as agriculture and tourism, as well as individual livelihoods and ecosystems.

There was only very limited specific scientific information available to these countries, and the Pacific Climate Change Science Program (PCCSP) was aiming to help fill this gap by examining past climate trends and variability and providing regional and national climate projections.

Projected regional warming was up to 1degC by 2030, and up to 1.3degC by 2055. If future global greenhouse gas emissions were low, by 2090 warming would be up to 2degC, and if they were high, up to 3degC. Large increases in the incidence of heatwaves, and extremely hot days were also projected.

A lift in mean annual rainfall for nations such as the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu would include torrential downpours that currently only happened once every 20 years — by 2055, they would happen four times a year, and by 2090, seven times a year. This would increase the risks of erosion and landslides on some islands, but there would be fewer droughts.

Recent research showed a global-mean sea-level rise of more than 2m by 2100 was “physically untenable” and a more plausible estimate was 800mm, with an global-averaged upper-end sea-level rise scenario of 550mm to 1.1m by 2100, and for the Pacific islands, the total sea-level rise was likely to be slightly-larger than the global average.

Increased ocean acidification was likely to be a major problem for coral reefs — and the eco-systems based on them — by 2050, combined with the storm damage from more intense cyclones, and effects of coral bleaching, and increased pressure on fish stocks, said a CSIRO principal research scientist, Kevin Hennessy.

A briefing for journalists held by our colleagues at the Australian SMC can be heard here

Some of the links available to the projections for specific island nations include: Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Niue.

Climate-gate 2.0 ‘pathetic’

Meanwhile, a new batch of leaked emails from University of East Anglia climate researchers is believed to be an attempt to reignite the 2009 climategate furor, but scientists are writing it off as a non-event.

The emails were anonymously uploaded to a Russian server on Tuesday, accompanied by a text file highlighting particular emails. According to the Guardian, the the message “includes a sample of cherry-picked quotes selected from a small handful of the emails focusing on apparent disagreements between the scientists, the workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and attempts to block climate sceptics from securing documents from the scientists via freedom of information requests. Many of the same issues were highlighted in the 2009 release.”

The release of emails in 2009 was timed to cast doubt on climate research ahead of the Copenhagen summit negotiations. Likewise, the current release precedes critical climate talks to be held at a climate summit in Durban next week.

Dr Simon Lewis, Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, said,

“This latest email leak, again on the eve of important international climate talks, is about politics. Yet the shadowy, undemocratic group trying to influence these international talks will fail. I sat through two weeks of talks in Copenhagen after the first email release and heard them mentioned only once. This new leak will have a similarly limited impact … the emails are irrelevant”

Prof Michael Mann, one of the scientist embrioded in the initial climategate fiasco called the most recent email release “truly pathetic” and a “shameless effort to manufacture a false controversy”.

Read more reaction from climate scientists, collected by the UK SMC, here.
On the science radar

Earth’s suffocating core, ozone quake warning, light penetrating metal, nose exercises and cyborg insects.

Suicide case sparks discussion
Scientist Sean Davison — yesterday sentenced to five months home detention for “counselling and procuring” attempted suicide when he helped his cancer-riddled mother die — says any eventual euthanasia law passed in New Zealand will have to be carefully drawn.

Most importantly, individuals had to be allowed to choose for themselves, said Davison, 50, a microbiologist now based in Cape Town, South Africa, who was initially charged last year with attempting to murder his terminally ill mother Patricia Elizabeth Davison, 85, a former medical practitioner, in 2006.

Carole Sweney, a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, who went to the sentencing in the High Court at Dunedin to support Davison, said she felt the case “had moved things forward as far as public discussion goes”.

Public opinion was about 70-80 per cent behind voluntary euthanasia and politicians would have to deal with the issue.

A leading law academic, Professor Mark Henaghan, Dean at the University of Otago School of Law, told the SMC that New Zealand needs to discuss the issues around assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, and the Sean Davison case had brought the matter to a head.

“The one area where we don’t have anything — such as in the Sean Davison case — is the area of voluntary euthanasia, or assisted suicide,” he said.

“The changing demographics of the NZ population — with an increase in the proportion of elderly — means that these issues should be discussed. Though I felt very sorry for Sean Davison, I think the court case has brought the issue to a head”

“It’s a question of whether we see that as sufficiently different to switching off life support or whether we move quickly to a much more liberal position based on autonomy, an individual’s choice. We do need to debate it — that’s something we haven’t done enough of. A mature society like ours should be able to debate these things in the cold light of day — it’s slightly less emotionally-charged than the abortion debate, but has similar implications”.

Prof Henaghan and other experts on ethics also commented to the SMC in the context of a debate is already underway in Canada, where the Royal Society has published a 100-page review, stating,

“The use of sedation as a modality of care at the end of life appears to be increasing …there is a pressing need for a set of national consensus guidelines,”

The report also noted a significant majority of the Canadian population “appears to support a more permissive legislative framework for voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide”.

You can read extensive commentary from New Zealand ethics experts, collected by the SMC, here.

Rena spill – devil is in the detail
New Zealand authorities which have been using similar dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill still don’t know enought about the short-term lethal effects of the chemicals compared with the long-term effects on the food chain and ecology, says a leading ecologist.

“It’s the unknowns that are the big problem now for New Zealand,” said Waikato University’s Chair in Coastal Science Professor Chris Battershill, who spoke at a Cafe Scientifique event in Tauranga this week.

Coming months will reveal the true environmental impact of the dispersants used during the Rena oil spill, he said.

After the Rena ran aground Astrolabe Reef 12 nautical miles off the Tauranga coast on October and leaked about 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the ocean, attempts to use dispersants to break up the oil before it washed ashore were abandoned.

“This is the first big oil spill in New Zealand’s history,” Prof Battershill said. “We’ve quickly realised what isn’t known in this country about oil dispersants and toxicology … unfortunately we know little about the toxicology of the dispersants on New Zealand species.

“Right now, we need to learn more about the coastline and the food chain implications. The relevance of dispersant toxicology on New Zealand species is a huge gap in our knowledge”.

Research conducted by the university’s Coastal Marine Group will provide first-hand knowledge in responding to the disaster and determining how future marine disasters should be managed. “By Christmas we will know what the degree of impact is and the scenario for cleaning it up,” said Prof Battershill.

Uptake of new drugs slow in NZ – study
New research has suggested that Australia and New Zealand differ greatly in the timing of access to new drugs, prompting calls for more funding for new pharmaceuticals on this side of the Tasman.

Health economists Michael Wonder and and Richard Milne, today published in the New Zealand Medical Journal a study of differences between to the two countries’ pharmacutical funding schemes.

Between 2000 and 2009, PHARMAC funded only 59 of the 136 medicines funded by its Australian counterpart, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. And the time taken to provide state subsidies for new drugs was longer in New Zealand by a period of almost 2 years.

The authors noted that the discrepancy was in part due to PHARMACs capped budget which, unlike the Australian scheme, couldn’t be extended to new emerging medicines. “There is a case for the expansion of PHARMAC’s pharmaceuticals budget when highly cost-effective pharmaceutical interventions become available, rather than delaying listing indefinitely,” they said.

A response by PHARMAC staff, published in the same issue of the journal, pointed out several complications that made direct trans-Tasman comparisons difficult, and disagreed with a wholly ‘scorecard’ approach to pharmaceutical funding.

“Ultimately … the question is about the quality of health care and the quantity of health gain, rather than numerical item counts and timecourses”, the PHARMAC staff said.

A pharmaceutical industry body, Medicines New Zealand said further improvement was needed before New Zealand had optimal access. “Right now the truth is that access to innovative medicines for New Zealanders is lower and slower than that in Australia,” said Medicines NZ general manager Kevin Sheehy .

“The response by PHARMAC staff rightly points out a number of the challenges of making international comparisons of access, but does not address the underlying problem of how to improve people’s health by offering optimal access to new medicines,” he said.

“We may have dodged a bullet, but we need to know where the bullet went.
“As well as understanding how the food web has been affected, our research will seek to determine how the oil has affected the physiology of marine organisms, and indeed how the oil degrades.”

Professor Chris Battershill, Chair in Coastal Science, Waikato University, on monitoring longterm effects of Rena spill.

New from the SMC

Experts respond:

Climate change and extreme weather: The release of the latest IPCC report on climate change and weather has led New Zealand climate experts to consider how climate-related events elsewhere in the world may indirectly impact New Zealand

Debate over mega-organism: In the wake of New Scientist article, Dr Anthony Pool of Canterbury University talked to the SMC about the genetics of the theoretical progenitor of all life as we know it – the Last Universal Common Ancestor.

Euthanasia debate: Last week, the Royal Society of Canada released the final report of their expert panel on end-of-life decision making. The report lists several recommendations, among them that assisted suicide and euthanasia be legalised. Read responses from Canadian experts, and New Zealanders in the wake of the Sean Davison case.

Reflections on Science:

Rutherford winner on Kim Hill: Prof Christine Winterbourn from the University of Otago, Christchurch, winner of the 2011 Rutherford Medal, discusses her research and New Zealand science with Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill.

Dr Moa on fossils: Paleozoologist Trevor Worthy (AKA ‘Dr Moa’) talks to radio New Zealand about New Zealand’s past as told through fossils, and discusses the state of science in New Zealand.

Fishing for ocean protection: An article by Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons in the New Zealand Herald highlights the environmental issues surrounding fishing, drawing on the research presented in their book ‘Hook, Line & Blinkers: Everything Kiwis Never Wanted to Know About Fishing’.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

What about archaeopteryx? Some less-than-accurate ‘science’ education resources get the Alison Campbell treatment.
Bio Blog

Illegal lollipops, bad teeth and a new ‘apple’! Viruses are popping up in some unusual places! Siouxsie Wiles investigates a some odd viral situations.
Infectious Thoughts

Rena: Where’s the physics? In the wake of environmental disasters people look to conservationists and biologists. But, as Marcus Wilson point out, the physicist also plays a key role.
Physics Stop

Moral strawmannery – Ken Perrot takes on a few classic, but flawed, techniques used in creationist arguments.
Open Parachute

Research highlights

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

Ripe restrooms:
Novel genetic sequencing methods have been used to check out mother’s worst fears about public toilets — there’s bacteria all around, from the doors and the floors to the tap handles and toilet seats, with potential public health implications. Human skin was the primary source of bacteria on all surfaces, but there were interesting differences between the bacteria found in the men’s toilets, and those in womens’ toilets.

Arctic ice loss unparalleled: A reconstruction of changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years reveals that recent declines are unmatched by previous patterns of natural variation. The results support the concept that Arctic climate variability and sea ice are closely associated. Although their records show that previous sea ice declines occurred at a pace similar to the present trend, none matched the extent of the current decline.

Punk pictures of archaeological significance: A new study by archaeologists has been examining marks made much more recently — graffiti by the Sex Pistols now discovered on the walls of the flat the punk group rented in London in the mid-1970s. The researchers carried out a detailed analysis of the graffiti’s content and its cultural significance. Though they concede it could be considered rude, offensive and uncomfortable, they contend that its presence confirms the Denmark Street flat as an important historical and archaeological site.

Pregnancy a real drag for dolphins: Humans are not the only species to face difficulties getting around when pregnant. Marine biologists have reported the impact of pregnancy on the dolphins streamlined shape and mobility, after swimming with a pod of dolphins for weeks on end. Their results include the discovery that pregnant dolphins are significantly disadvantaged by their burden and adopt a new swimming style (gait) to account for their awkward condition.
Journal of Experimental Biology

‘Terminator vision’ lenses: The streaming of real-time information across your field of vision is a step closer to reality with the development of a prototype contact lens that could potentially provide the wearer with hands-free information updates. researchers constructed a computerised contact lens and demonstrated its safety by testing it on live eyes. There were no signs of adverse side effects. The contact lens device contains only a single pixel but the researchers see this as a “proof-of-concept” for producing lenses with multiple pixels which, in their hundreds, could be used to display messages right before your eyes.
Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering

Painkiller danger: Repeatedly taking slightly too much paracetamol over time can cause a dangerous overdose that is difficult to spot, but puts the person at danger of dying. These so-called staggered overdoses can occur when people have pain and repeatedly take a little more paracetamol than they should. In the case of a single dose overdose, a blood sample gives valuable information, but people with staggered overdoses may have low levels of paracetamol in their blood even though they are at high risk of liver failure and death.
British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology

Policy updates

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

Guidance on NPS – The Ministry for the Environment has developed guides for councils implementing two of the new National Policy Statements (Freshwater Mangement and Renewable Energy Generation), available online.

Strawberry recall – The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has issued a recall of “Buzzy” Strawberry Mini Grow Kits. MAF says the seeds in the kits were imported and mistakenly released for sale when they should have been quarantined and tested for a range of plant viruses.

Health agency board created – Health Minister Tony Ryall has announced the members of the Health Promotion Agency Establishment Board. The board was created following the dis-establishment of the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand (ALAC) and the Health Sponsorship Council (HSC).

Get up to speed on Election 2011 science policies with the Science Media Centre’s political party Q&A

Upcoming sci-tech events
New Zealand Institute of Chemistry Conference – Hamilton, 27 November to 1 December.
NZ’s Demographic Futures: Where to from here? – 2011 biennial PANZ Conference, Auckland, 28 and 29 November.
Functional Foods Symposium 2011 – Auckland, 30 November.
Massey’s Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Conference – Albany, 1 December
4th ISPIM Innovation Symposium – Managing Innovation for Sustained Productivity – Wellington, 29 November – 2 December
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.


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