Monday, 31 October 2016

World's biggest marine protected area in Antarctic gets green light

A joint New Zealand-US proposal to create the world's largest marine protected area in Antarctic waters has finally got across the line.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully confirmed this afternoon that member countries of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) had agreed to the sanctuary in the Ross Sea after talks in Hobart this week.

The marine protected area (MPA) will cover roughly 1.55m square kilometres, of which 1.12m sq km will be a no-take zone.

"New Zealand has played a leading role in reaching this agreement which makes a significant contribution to global marine protection," McCully said.

Now that it has the approval of the 25 countries which govern the Antarctic, the MPA will come into force in December 2017.

It is one of New Zealand's major foreign policy objectives, and it has taken six years of diplomatic wrangling to get all countries to agree to the proposal.

CCAMLR decisions require a consensus, and proposals can fail if any single country objects. Previous attempts to reach agreement have been scuppered by opposition from fishing countries, mainly Russia and Ukraine.

McCully lobbied his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the issue during a recent trip to Moscow.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry - who has a strong interest in marine protected area - had also held talks with Lavrov.
"At a time when relations on so many fronts are difficult with the Russians, some co-operation and a constructive dialogue is very pleasing to us."

NZ's oceans are under rising pressure - report

New Zealand's marine environment is under increasing pressure from climate change, pollution and 
pests, a new Government stocktake has found.

Yet the major report, released this morning by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, fails to show the full impact fishing is having on our oceans.
The paper pin-points three major concerns:

• Global greenhouse gas emissions are causing ocean acidification and warming - changes that will continue for generations.

• Most of our native marine birds and many mammals are threatened with, or at risk of extinction.
• Our coasts are the most degraded of all marine areas, due to sediment and nutrients washed off the land, introduced marine pests, and seabed trawling and dredging.

But it found the full ecological impact of fishing "was not clear" - and did not draw firm conclusions about specific effects of commercial, recreational and customary fishing.

Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said our oceans are facing multiple, and cumulative pressures that have been building over generations.

"Our waters have become more acidic from absorbing excess CO2," she said.

"This affects the creatures that live there. Among other things, ocean acidification makes it more difficult for shellfish, like pa and mussels, to form shells."

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Scientists report 'devastating' coral death in new Great Barrier Reef survey

We knew this news was coming, perhaps. Now that it is here, it is no less shocking.

Ever since a historic coral bleaching event hit the treasured Great Barrier Reef in March - courtesy of a dramatic influx of warm water in the region - scientists have been trying to take a toll of the damage. And the latest report, from researchers with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, seems to reaffirm some of the worst fears.

It's important to caution that not all of the evidence is in yet. The Great Barrier Reef is enormous and takes time to survey.

Still it appears that in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, large volumes of corals may have died. That's the part of the reef researchers say was, previously, the most "pristine" - in other words, the least damaged by pollution and other human influences.

"In the area [where] I am, I'm at Lizard Island, about 250 kilometres north of Cannes, around about 80 per cent and upwards of the corals have died," said Andrew Hoey, a senior research fellow with the Centre, during a break yesterday from the ongoing research.

In a press release from the ARC Centre, one of Hoey's colleagues, Greg Torda, said "millions" of corals in the northern sector of the reef have died.

Even though their studies are not complete, the researchers are already asserting that this is far worse than prior bleaching events that occurred in 1998 and 2002.

"The mortality is devastating really," said Hoey. "It's a lot higher than we had hoped."

Thursday, 27 October 2016

These Antarctic glaciers have had staggering ice loss in the past 15 years

Few regions of the world are as unstable in the face of advancing climate change as frozen West Antarctica, where rapidly melting glaciers have scientists on edge about the potential for huge amounts of future sea-level rise.
Now, a new study has pinpointed some of the most rapid ice losses observed in the region in the past 15 years - and it supports a growing scientific belief that warm ocean water is behind the melting.

"[The study] seems to provide a strong piece of evidence to support a general hypothesis about what's happening in the Amundsen Sea," said Ala Khazendar, a polar scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the new paper's lead author.

Much of the focus on West Antarctica centres around the Amundsen Sea region, whose glaciers may already be experiencing irreversible ice loss. The glaciers backing up to this sea have the potential to cause about 1.2m of sea-level rise, and the ice contained in West Antarctica as a whole could raise sea levels by 3m.

Several of the region's largest glaciers have inspired some of the greatest concern. Just last week, US and British science agencies announced a joint multimillion-dollar research mission to study the massive Thwaites Glacier, which scientists believe may already be contributing about 10 per cent of all global sea-level rise. And a recent study on the nearby (and slightly smaller) Pine Island Glacier has documented recent rapid retreat .

Now, research increasingly suggests it's not just atmospheric warming that's causing all the problems in West Antarctica, but the influence of the ocean as well . Many glaciers in this region back right up to the edge of the sea, terminating in what's known as an ice shelf - a ledge of floating ice that's disconnected from the bedrock and juts out into the water, helping to stabilise the glacier and hold back the flow of ice behind it.

Scientists now believe that rising water temperatures may be helping to weaken ice shelves by seeping into the cavities beneath them and lapping up against the exposed ice. If an ice shelf thins or breaks, the glacier behind it begins to pour ice into the ocean and retreat inland. The point where the bottom of the glacier actually joins to the bedrock is known as the grounding line, and scientists often use it as a point of reference to measure how far a glacier has retreated over time.

Scientists believe this is what's driving the retreat of the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. But while these glaciers hold some of the greatest potential to raise sea-levels, smaller glaciers in the area can also offer some important insights into the processes driving ice loss in the region.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Humans blamed for rise in shark attacks

Shark attacks on humans are at a record number with scientists concluding people interfering with the ocean beasts' environment is the main reason for the rise.
Last year, there were 98 unprovoked shark attacks around the world, six of those fatal.
That's 10 more than the previous record of 88 in 2000.

Researchers at Bond University in Queensland have looked at areas where shark attacks are most common, reported The Australian.

Their studies, published in the Ocean & Coastal Management journal, showed that 84 per cent of attacks occurred in six areas - the United States, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, the Bahamas and the [Indian Ocean] island of Reunion.

In the Bahamas, one factor in attacks was the rise in careless shark diving and handfeeding.
Off Reunion, shark populations surged after hunting them was banned - which researchers said could have led to food shortages for the sharks. It coincided with an increase in scuba

More than half the attacks happened in America, with the majority in Florida, in particular around the city of Daytona on surfing beaches.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Ancient crater lake in Central Otago offers clues for Antarctica

An ancient crater lake in Central Otago has given a Kiwi scientist a unique insight into how quickly climate change could cause the Antarctic ice sheet to melt.
Fossilised leaves found at Foulden Maar near Middlemarch have been found to contain evidence of a sharp increase in atmospheric CO2 levels associated with a major collapse of the ice sheet 23 million years ago.

University of Waikato paleoclimatologist Dr Beth Fox and colleagues from Columbia University in New York calculated the CO2 levels by studying stomatal cells and carbon isotope ratios in the fossils.

They found CO2 levels rose from about 500 parts per million (ppm) to up to 1550ppm over a geologically short span of less than 10,000 years.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Antarctica: science at the end of the Earth

With global models drawing an ever-clearer picture of unchecked warming, there has never been a more urgent time to answer the big questions about climate change's vast, frozen elephant in the room: Antarctica. As top Kiwi scientists fly south for New Zealand's 60th research season on the ice, science reporter Jamie Morton takes a look at some of the fascinating studies planned for this summer.

1. Antarctica from the air

Antarctica's sea ice, swelling and retreating with the seasons like a breathing organ, plays a crucial yet poorly understood role in our planet's climate system.

The immensely complex natural sequence helps maintain the cold conditions that ultimately sustain the continent, while also influencing storms across the Southern Hemisphere and affecting the amount of heat the Southern Ocean can absorb as the Earth warms.
Experimental observations during the polar winter have shown increased losses of ozone that were caused by solar-generated
But some of the sea ice's most intriguing behaviour isn't captured by the giant Earth System Model (ESM) used to predict our planet's future climate, prompting a team of Kiwi researchers to fill in the gaps.

They'll do it using an airborne electromagnetic device called the "EMBird", which will be slung below a DC3 utility aircraft to map snow and sea ice thickness as it flies over the southwest Ross Sea.

The research team, from Otago University, Canterbury University, the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (Niwa) and US collaborators, wants to tease out the influence on coastal sea ice of the very cold water that emerges from beneath ice shelves, the huge glaciers that float on the ocean.

"We have flown the EMBird from a helicopter before, but it has never been flown below an aircraft in Antarctica," says project leader Professor Pat Langhorne, of Otago University.
"There will be the challenges of the weather and inevitable delays and the preparation of the aircraft - we have to change from skis to wheels and back."
The observations they collect will contribute toward a new part of an improved ESM able to create region-specific forecasts of future climate for New Zealand and its nearest neighbours.
There will be the challenges of the weather and inevitable delays and the preparation of the aircraft - we have to change from skis to wheels and back.
Professor Pat Langhorne

2. Drilling down into the ice world's past

Earth's future sea level - projected to be around a metre higher by 2100, but potentially much higher if carbon emissions continue unabated - is one of the most worrying prospects of climate change.

We know the biggest potential contributor to sea level rise is ice stored in Antarctica - oceans could rise by an estimated average 60m if all of it melted - but scientists still can't put their finger precisely on how the continent is responding.

A collaboration led by Dr Gavin Dunbar, of Victoria University's Antarctic Research Centre, is zeroing in on a region thought to be particularly susceptible to collapse in a warmer world.

At the Ross Ice Shelf, near the Kamb ice stream and 1000km from Scott Base, they plan to drill deep into rocks beneath the ocean and ice to reveal a detailed record of the environment in which they were once deposited, millions of years ago.
 "By reading the rock we can get some idea of how extensive the ice was under climates of the past when Earth was warmer than today," Dunbar says.

"This helps us calibrate our computer models that are trying to project how much and how fast sea level will rise in future."

Over November and December, the team will pin-point a drilling target, revealed by generating sound waves with explosives that travel through the ice and rock and bounce back when they hit changing rock type, up to 500m below the surface.

Beyond seeing whether the record will give them the kind of information they're after, the seismic data should also be useful for ongoing studies of Antarctic glaciology and informing the bigger picture of how Antarctica works.

"We also hope to deploy an array of weather stations in this remote part of Antarctic to get some idea of how the atmosphere circulates there for the first time."

The expedition would face the ever-present dangers that come with working in freezing conditions.
"However, the ice shelf itself is probably the most featureless part of Antarctica, so fingers are crossed that we don't get any unpleasant surprises from nature."

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Planet at its hottest in 115,000 years thanks to climate change, experts say

Global warming is said to be bringing temperatures last seen during an interglacial era, when sea level was 6-9 meters (20-30ft) higher than today

In order to meet targets set at last year’s Paris climate accord to avoid runaway climate change, “massive CO2 extraction” costing an eye-watering $104tn to $570tn will be required over the coming century with “large risks and uncertain feasibility” as to its success, the paper states.

“There’s a misconception that we’ve begun to address the climate problem,” said Hansen, who brought climate change into the public arena through his testimony to the US congress in the 1980s. “This misapprehension is based on the Paris climate deal where governments clapped themselves on the back but when you look at the science it doesn’t compute, it’s not true.

“Even with optimistic assumptions (future emissions reduction) will cost hundreds of trillions of dollars. It’s potentially putting young people in charge of a situation that is beyond their control. It’s not clear they will be able to take such actions.”

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

European experts have announced that the winter 2016 – 2017 will be the coldest in the last 100 years as Arctic air masses arrive over the European continent.  

Europeans brace for coldest winter in a century

European experts have announced that the winter 2016 – 2017 will be the coldest in the last 100 years as Arctic air masses arrive over the European continent.  

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Deal set to limit emissions from international flights

    Just a day after the historic announcement that the Paris climate agreement will enter into force this year, countries of the world yesterday agreed to a new regime to curb a large source of greenhouse gas emissions not covered under that agreement - those from international aircraft flights.

    At an assembly in Montreal, the member states of the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) agreed to a "market-based measure" to reduce the emissions from international fights, beginning on a voluntary basis for countries in 2020 and then entering a second phase in 2027. Emissions would be fixed at 2020 levels, and airlines that exceeded those levels would have to buy credits to offset the additional emissions.

    The gist is that while international aviation will grow in volume in the future, its emissions should nevertheless be held constant at 2020 levels.

    "Aviation can now claim its Paris moment," said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, the president of the ICAO council, in a statement following the news.

    While some environmental groups hailed the decision as significant in light of what Paris left unfinished, others suggested the emissions cuts won't be strong enough.

Friday, 7 October 2016

How US scientists tagged and tracked 770kg shark

She isn't quite an adult, but at 3.8m long and weighing in at just under 1700 pounds (770kg), scientists were eager to tag Miss Costa to follow her feeding and living habits.

They got their chance when the white shark first appeared in late September off the coast of Nantucket in Massachusetts. An added bonus came on Monday when her GPS-like tracking device showed her swimming near the surface just off the coast, east of the Virginia-North Carolina state line.
While it might surprise the average beachgoer to hear that the shark, nicknamed Miss Costa, was spotted along Virginia's coastline, scientists who specialise in studying sharks said it isn't all that rare.

"It's not unusual for white sharks to come into the Carolina area close to the coast in winter time," said Robert Hueter, who is the lead scientist on the expedition run by, a research operation on sharks.

He said Miss Costa is likely headed to her winter feeding grounds in Florida.

The shark is one of dozens of sharks the group tracks. They are often named for the sponsors involved (Miss Costa is named for Costa Sunglasses).

The information scientists are able to track and glean once a shark is tagged is important, they said, to understanding the animals and helping to preserve their habitat.

Using a 38m boat and a special hydraulic lift, scientists are able to get access to the sharks for a brief time. In about 15 minutes, they take genetic samples, blood and other samples, then attach a transmitter to the shark's dorsal fin.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Russia plans to kill a quarter-million Siberian reindeer amid anthrax fears

You know Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid . . . ?
Their cousins may all be dead soon.

Faced with a public health crisis straight from a dystopian horror movie, officials in a remote region of Siberia have proposed killing off 250,000 reindeer by Christmas to minimise the possible spread of deadly anthrax bacteria, according to the Siberian Times.

The alarm started in July, when an outbreak of the bacteria killed a 12-year-old nomadic boy and sickened nearly 100 people in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, a vast northwestern region of the Siberian tundra. More than 2300 reindeer also died.

ergency but also tried to reassure the Nenets, the nomadic indigenous people of the region, who roam with the herds of reindeer and depend on them for their existence.

"There is no epidemic in Yamal," Kobylkin told the Associated Press then. "Only a small area was quarantined."

The Yamal Peninsula, where the outbreak occurred, was immediately closed off and the carcasses of the dead animals burned. Kobylkin said all the reindeer on the peninsula - some 300,000 - were vaccinated, the AP reported.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

NZ sea lion a cold-blooded killer

Researchers have mapped out the homicidal histories of more than 1000 mammals - and found that the New Zealand sea lion was among the most conspicuous.

In a long list compiled by an international team of scientists, who just reported their findings in the major journal Nature, the critically-endangered seal species stood out alongside the lion, long-tailed marmot, banded mongoose and red-fronted lemur as having the highest rates of so-called "conspecific deaths".

But, of course, the bigger story was us humans, who, unlike bats and whales, don't exactly have a clean record.

The study authors found that "lethal interpersonal violence" was a particular feature of primates and was likely to have been inherited by humans during the course of evolution.

Taking data from a variety of human and mammalian sources, ranging from 50,000 years ago to the present, they predicted that the overall proportion of human deaths caused by interpersonal violence 

tands at around two per cent - a figure that matched the observed value for prehistoric man.