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SMC Heads-Up to 24 Nov: Extreme Weather, Science Funding

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Extreme Weather Science Funding New from the SMC Sciblogs highlights Research highlights Policy updates Sci-tech events

Issue 159 November 18-24

Special report on extreme weather

In the early hours of tomorrow (NZ time) the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a draft “special report” expected to cite links between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increasing frequency of extreme weathers such as big storms, floods and droughts.

Though delegates at the SREX conference in Kampala, Uganda
were today still working through the details of a summary for policymakers — which has to be agreed in full by the participating nations — it is expected to address links between human activities and the frequency of extreme weather, particularly heatwaves, droughts and changes in rainfall patterns.

The report is one of only two that the IPCC is publishing before its 2014 comprehensive assessment of the state of climate change science, and earlier leaked versions highlighted the potential for drought to intensify in the Mediterranean region, central Europe, southern parts of North America, northeast Brazil and southern Africa.

A leaked copy of the draft summary, details of which have been published by the BBC and French newsagency AFP, have indicated that though the human and financial toll of extreme weather events has risen, the cause has been mostly due to increased human settlement rather than worse weather. The Australian newspaper reported there was only “low confidence” that tropical cyclones had become more frequent, “limited to medium evidence available” to assess whether climatic factors have changed the frequency of floods, and “low confidence” on a global scale even on whether the frequency had risen or fallen.

According to the BBC, the draft report said while it was “likely” that anthropogenic influences were behind the changes in cold days and warm days, there was only “medium confidence” that they were behind changes in extreme rainfall events, and “low confidence” in attributing any changes in tropical cyclone activity to greenhouse gas emissions or anything else humanity had done.The draft report said “uncertainty in the sign of projected changes in climate extremes over the coming two to three decades is relatively large because climate change signals are expected to be relatively small compared to natural climate variability”.

A senior United States scientist, New Zealander Dr Kevin Trenberth — head of the climate analysis section at the USA National Center for Atmospheric Research and a lead author of the 2001 and 2007 IPCC scientific assessment of climate change — told the SMC: “I have seen chapter 3 of the SREX report and I am worried that it seems wishy-washy, does not properly frame the questions, and is not up to date”. But he noted that he was running a major conference in Rome and “not in a position to keep up with this at the moment”.

An American climatologist — Dr James Hansen, an adjunct professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University — said this week in a paper (which has not been submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal) that summer mean temperatures, including data for 2011, had risen inexorably above the 1951-1980 average. Each year about a tenth of the world’s land area now experienced an “extremely hot” June-July-August, something all but unheard of just 60 years ago, said Dr Hansen, who recently visited New Zealand.

“The big problem is that more warming is already in the pipeline without further increase of greenhouse gases and the gases are continuing to increase,” he said. “The most important effects of the warming probably come via the effect of warming in exacerbating the extremes of the hydrologic cycle: more intense droughts at times and places where it is dry and more extreme precipitation and floods at other times”. Other commentators have said his observations appear robust for global data but the recent trend in extremely hot USA summers appeared similar to those of the 1930s, and that such “noise” from natural weather variation was expected in local and regional data.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) global full-year mean temperatures reached a record in 2010 tied with 1998 and 2005, and the past decade was the warmest since measurements began in the nineteenth century. Earlier this year, WMO said that it was “very likely” that compared with pre-industrial times, human influence on climate had at least doubled the risk of a heatwave such as the 2003 one in Europe, blamed for 40,000-70,000 deaths.

Intellectual pursuit is crucial

The nation’s most senior science adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman has told the nation’s scientists that science communication is not just a matter of telling people what the science is.

“There is the need to tell the public about what we do, because the public owns what we do — they paid for it,” Sir Peter said, after he was presented with the inaugural Callaghan Medal for outstanding contribution to science communication, particularly raising public awareness of the value of science to human progress.

“There is the need to explain the complexity of science so that the citizens of New Zealand can take their part in judging how science will affect their future, and what choices they should make, whether it’s climate change, or advanced foods or whatever,” he said. “The public are part of the decision-making process and we’re not doing a good enough job in that regard”.

“Most importantly, we must convince this country that intellectual pursuit is our most important pursuit, because it is from that we will get economic growth, we will get a better environment and we will get social development. All of us have role in science communication”

And the first woman scientist to take home New Zealand’s most prestigious science medal, biochemist Professor Christine Winterbourn, urged science funders to continue supporting “blue skies” research, including fundamental work that may have no immediately-apparent application to industry.

The Rutherford Medal – with a $100,000 cheque – was this week presented to Prof Winterbourn, from the University of Otago, Christchurch, for her outstanding achievements and discoveries in free radical biology.
Noting that science was an exploration, Prof Winterbourn told guests at the awards ceremony in Wellington that it was important for funders of science to remember the importance of supporting fundamental research. “This is not only because of the great discoveries that we can make – and we have made in New Zealand – but because this is also the ground for fostering the curiosity and the enthusiasm of young scientists,” she said.

Full details of the scientists honoured can be seen here.

Video interviews with several winners can be viewed here.

Inaugural Science Teller revs up
The inaugural Science Teller festival in Dunedin is underway, promoting a cast of international science communication superstars.

Organised by the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, the festival is celebration of storytelling in science, featuring presentations from a number of highly regarded science communicators.

The festival opened on Tuesday with renowned American storyteller Jay O’Callahan performing his one man show Forged in the Stars, a NASA-commissioned tale exploring the history of space exploration. From there the festival has been a non-stop showcase of science featuring some of the world’s best storytellers, including physicist Lawrence Krauss, COSMOS editor Wilson da Silva and filmmaker Klaus Fitchenbeger .

If you are in Dunedin tomorrow (Saturday), don’t miss the chance to see presentations by award winning Kiwi author Bill Manhire and science journalist Alison Ballance .

See the full Science Teller programme here

People outside Dunedin need not despair: a number of talks from the festival will also be posted online as part of the SCITED initiative from the Centre for Science Communication.

Science Teller festival runs from the 15-19th November with most of the presentations are open to the public ($5 entry fee).

Science challenges get $60m fillip

The Government has announced a new science fund directed towards “national science challenges” in a collation of 120 promises from 33 separate policy areas framed as an “economic development” plan.

Between four and eight scientific research projects will be funded from $60 million over four years, with funding proposed by the Minister of Science and Innovation in consultation with the relevant science community and the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

Prime Minister John Key provided three examples of the types of questions that might be suitable for funding under the national science challenge:

* How could New Zealand intensify its primary industries in an environmentally sustainable way – increasing production while at the same time protecting the environment, particularly water quality?

* What cost-effective technologies could be developed for sustainable energy production through use of biomass (plant material or agricultural waste) or advanced geothermal technologies?

* How could New Zealand produce a new generation of high-value foods – for example food or food-derived products that have demonstrated health benefits, designed for the Asian market?

Quoted: Research Honours Awards
“Who would have thought that 25 years of studying creepy little worms would lead to this?”

– Professor Robert Poulin, of University of Otago, after being told he had won the Hutton Medal for animal sciences for his leading research in the field of parasitic diseases, especially ecological parasitology.

New from the SMC

Experts respond:

Teen drinking costs: American researchers investigating the longterm impacts of a lower legal drinking age in some US states say the evidence points to higher risk of serious harm including suicide and homicide, when the drinking age is lower.
Their study showed that a higher risk of suicide and homicide persisted into adulthood among women born after 1960 who came from states that permitted under-21 drinking. Women had a 12
percent higher risk of suicide and a 15 percent higher risk of homicide if they grew up where drinking was permitted at younger ages, making a new argument for keeping the legal minimum drinking age at 21.

Reflections on science:

It’s all about funding: “NZ spends a lot of money on research, [but] it’s really bad at commercialising it,” says Polybatics chief executive Tracy Thompson of Palmerston North. He says two “significant” deals are looming.
In the news:

NZ’s Rocket Lab named: This week, Popular Science Magazine released it’s “Best of What’s New for 2011” Awards, highlighting the top 100 innovative technologies in the world. Instant Eyes, a hand-held rocket-launched Un-manned Aerial Vehicle (UAV),
developed by Rocket Lab and L2 Aerospace, received an award
in the “Security” category as one of the “World’s Most Innovative Technologies.”

GE prototypes useful in lab: Genetically-engineered (GE) prototyping is a tool available to researchers planning breeding programmes, Plant and Food Research executive David Hughes tells fast prototyping answers questions about fruit that may one day be produced conventionally.

Scientific writing: The two winning entries in the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Writing were Dr Bridget Stocker from Wellington’s Malaghan Institute of Medical Research being awarded the fiction prize and Dr Joanna Wojnar from Auckland University winning the non-fiction category.
Their winning entries on the theme of “Chemical World” will be published in the Listener.

Ocean drilling: A meeting of scientists in Oamaru this week will provide valuable information on climate change that will be used globally.Forty scientists from around the world, including Korea, China, Britain, the United State, Japan and Australia, as well as two New Zealanders are this week reviewing results from the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme (IODP) expedition off the coast of South Canterbury early last year.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

Surf’s up – The Wave Watcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney is this year’s the winner of the UK Royal Society’s Winton Prize for science books. It. beat a shortlist which included Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass and Alex Bellos’s Alex’s Adventures in Numberland.

You know you need a new car when… – Marcus Wilson looks over his broken fan belt with analytical eyes of a physicist.
Physics Stop

Writing about environmental history – Alison Campbell reflects on the need to communicate our surroundings – and their past

The Case of the Mysterious Jellyfish – Wellingtons squishy sea creatures have captured the attention of Aimee Whitcroft

Research highlights

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

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria in sewage: Discharge of even wastewater treated by the highest-quality treatment technology can result in significant quantities of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, often referred to as “superbacteria,” in surface waters. Standard
effluent treatments probably release far greater quantities of antibiotic-resistant genes used by bacteria, but these are masked by background levels of bacteria.
Environmental Science and Technology

Glazed mountain: Buried below two or three kilometres of ice, Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Mountains were formed one billion years ago, before animals or plants appeared on land. Several continents collided and a thick crustal root formed, only to warm and rise between 250 and 100 million years ago when the supercontinent Gondwana ripped apart. But for 34 million years a spectacular landscape like the European Alps has been hidden under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, new research shows.

Immunisation conflict: Vaccinating children annually against influenza virus may interfere with their development of cross-reactive killer T cells to attack flu viruses generally. The effect showed up in Dutch children with cystic fibrosis, vaccinated annually against influenza, and suggested annual flu vaccines are effective against seasonal flu, but could leave people more vulnerable to novel pandemics.
Journal of Virology

Simple fix for infant iron levels: Waiting for at least three minutes before clamping the umbilical cord in healthy newborns improves their iron levels at age four months. Delaying cord clamping should be standard care after uncomplicated
pregnancies, as iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia are major public health problems in young children around the world and are associated with poor neurodevelopment.
British Medical Journal

Policy updates

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

Health report released – The Director-General of Health has published The Health and Independence report 2011 . The report examines public funding allocated to health and disability support services in New Zealand, workforce issues, service allocation and achievements.
Funding for youth interventions – The Ministry of Health has announces a $33 million funding boost for forensic mental health services to improve early intervention and treatment services for youth offenders. The funding, spread over four years, will provide mental health, alcohol and drug assessment services for the 4200 young offenders who appear in youth courts each year.

Upcoming sci-tech events
The Commercial Exploitation of Scientific Research- Professor Sir Michael Brady – 21 November, Wellington.
2011 Surveying & Spatial Sciences Conference -21 – 25 November, Wellington.
National Pest Control Agencies (NPCA) AGM – 22 November, Wellington.
Talking Head: Professor Joe Schwarcz from McGill University, Canada – 24 November, Wellington
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.


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