Tuesday, 28 February 2017

NZ forests could be absorbing 60% more CO2

Our forests and other land areas may be sucking up to 60 per cent more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than previously thought and we can likely thank our native trees for much of it.

That's according to new research led by National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) scientists, who further found much of the new-found uptake is occurring in the southwest of the South Island.

Carbon dioxide is a primary greenhouse gas and responsible for most of the human-induced warming in the atmosphere.

Globally, carbon sinks, such as oceans and forests, have helped mitigate the effects of climate change by absorbing about half the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities during the past few decades.

New Zealand's forest carbon uptake played a key role in meeting our commitments under the Kyoto Climate treaty and is expected to play an important role in meeting the country's climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement.

In the study, just published in scientific journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, a team led by Dr Kay Steinkamp and Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher used an "inverse" modelling approach to estimate the amount of carbon uptake.

This was done by measuring the carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere at a network of sites, and then using high-resolution weather models to determine what parts of New Zealand the air had passed over before reaching the site.

Simulations from a land model, run by partners at GNS Science, and ocean carbon data, provided further information.

From there, the team calculated the best combinations of sources and sinks to match the data.


Sunday, 26 February 2017

Penguins much older than previously thought

Penguins are much older than previously thought and their evolution probably dates back to the days of the dinosaurs, according to research on fossilised remains in Canterbury Museum.

The leg bone and toes from a giant ancient penguin were found by an amateur collector in rocks near Waipara.

A study by Dr Gerald Mayr, of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany, and Canterbury Museum scientists Professor Paul Scofield and Dr Vanesa De Pietri has been published in the The Science of Nature.

The researchers estimate the penguin was about 1.50m tall and say the find is one of the oldest penguin fossils in the world, dating back 61 million years.

The bones differ substantially from previous penguin finds of a similar age and show that the variety of Palaeocene penguins, living between 66 and 56 million years ago, was greater than previously thought.


Friday, 24 February 2017

More blue whales found in South Taranaki

The South Taranaki Bight has New Zealand's only known blue whale foraging ground, Dr Leigh Torres says.

In 2015, the first year of a three-year survey, Dr Torres' group saw 33 blue whales. This year they saw 68 different individuals, in multiple sightings over nine days.

They saw five mother and calf pairs, and two male whales having a race - possibly to show off and attract mates.

The whales looked thinner than they should be, and Dr Torres doesn't know why. Many wore scars from predators or collisions with vessels.

They will undoubtedly be affected if iron-sand mining goes ahead in the bight, Dr Torres told the Environmental Protection Authority hearing on seabed mining this week.

For whales, hearing is more important than sight. Sound from the iron-sand mining operation proposed by Trans-Tasman Resources could disrupt their actions or drive them away.

They feed on the marine crustaceans called krill, at depths of 70m-200m. Mining could increase the amount of fine sediment in the water and affect the presence of krill.

Mining would also increase the number of vessels in the bight. Vessel strike is another danger for the marine mammals.

Dr Torres' researchers have placed five hydrophones in the sea area between Farewell Spit and Cape Egmont. They record whale calls and help trace whale movements.

Recordings from January to July show a fairly constant whale presence, and Dr Torres expects to find the same for the rest of the year.


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

How did our ancient ancestors face climate change? Scientists peek thousands of years back

Mankind is already adapting to the widespread impacts of future climate change - but how did we do it in the past?

Otago University researchers, along with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Oxford, have gazed thousands of years back into the past to shed light on past human responses to climate change.

It has been argued that some of the earliest human experiments with agriculture worldwide were linked to a changing climate, so the research team studied archaeological deposits at a site in the rainforests of the New Guinea Highlands, in the same ecology where some of the earliest global agricultural behaviours have been documented at the Unesco site of Kuk Swamp.

The researchers analysed the carbon and oxygen isotope in the teeth of 140 small mammals from the site with the aim of producing an environmental record directly reflecting human behaviour in this region.

The team found that the zone where tropical forest and open ecosystems met provided a stable source of subsistence for human hunter-gathers, who continued to hunt bats, cuscus, and possums from 12,000 to 300 years ago, indicating that agriculture was not an inevitable or forced event in this part of the world.

Tropical forests have been frequently perceived as unviable habitats for long-term human forager and agriculturalist occupation and subsistence.

A long period of work in New Guinea has helped to overturn this perception in the anthropological and archaeological literature.

Humans are now known to have occupied areas of this region, covered today in montane rainforest, from 45,000 years ago and some of the earliest evidence for human experiments with agriculture comes from the tropical forested portions of New Guinea.


Monday, 20 February 2017

Why the future doesn't look good for our glaciers

Regional climate variability caused an unusual period in which some of New Zealand's glaciers grew bigger, while glaciers worldwide were shrinking, a new study shows.

The research, carried out by scientists from Victoria University and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), is published todayin scientific journal Nature Communications.

At least 58 New Zealand glaciers advanced between 1983 and 2008, with Franz Josef Glacier advancing nearly continuously during this time.

"Glaciers advancing is very unusual, especially in this period when the vast majority of glaciers worldwide shrank in size as a result of our warming world," said lead author Associate Professor Andrew Mackintosh, from Victoria's Antarctic Research Centre.

"This anomaly hadn't been satisfactorily explained, so this physics-based study used computer models for the first time to look into it in detail.

"We found that lower temperature caused the glaciers to advance, rather than increased precipitation as previously thought.

"These periods of reduced temperature affected the entire New Zealand region, and they were significant enough for the glaciers to re-advance in spite of human-induced climate change."

Mackintosh said the climate variability, which includes the cooler years, still reflected a climate that's been modified by humans.

"It may seem unusual. This regional cooling during a period of overall global warming but it's still consistent with human-induced climate change."


Saturday, 18 February 2017

Whales, drones and ice: Six bold new Kiwi studies

Whales, toothfish and the enigma that is Antarctica's sea ice will be targeted in six urgent Kiwi studies on the frozen continent and in the Southern Ocean.

The projects, funded by the Christchurch-based New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), aim to gather fresh insights into the effects of climate change on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

"The degree of potential disruption to the coastal and near-shore regions of Antarctica from ocean and climate warming is an overarching theme of the research," NZARI director Professor Gary Wilson said.

"From algae to toothfish, there is a clear focus on the potential for living species to resist the changes in ocean conditions brought about by global warming."

One study, led by Otago University researchers Professor Stephen Dawson and Dr William Rayment, focuses on southern right whales.

Mothers give birth to calves weighing about 1500kg, yet they do not feed for the several weeks they are on the breeding grounds.

This extraordinary demand for energy was met from reserves accumulated in foraging areas, where they fed on copepod crustaceans and small krill, which in turn fed on phytoplankton, the base of the Southern Ocean food web.

Primary productivity was driven by oceanic conditions, which were profoundly influenced by climate change.

Dawson and Rayment will study how climate-driven variations in productivity affects the condition and breeding success of right whales, measured using specially equipped drones, in the sub-antarctic Auckland Islands.


Thursday, 16 February 2017

Humboldt penguin is stolen from German zoo; keepers fearful

German police say a Humboldt penguin has been stolen out of its cage from a zoo in the southwestern city of Mannheim, and zookeepers say the bird could easily die if it's not returned soon.

Zookeepers noticed the penguin missing during a routine count on Saturday of the South American birds, the dpa news agency reported yesterday.

After a search of the grounds, zoo personnel were unable to find any signs that the flight-less penguin, which is 50 centimetres tall and weighs 5 kilogrammes, escaped. They concluded it was stolen.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

How we're waking climate change's sleeping giant

A world-leading glaciologist visiting New Zealand says scientists are fast running out of time to fully understand dramatic changes under way in climate change's sleeping giant: Antarctica.

Professor Eric Rignot, based at the University of California, Irvine and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will this week give a free talk in Wellington, outlining growing concerns scientists have about the frozen continent and pressing the urgent case for action on climate change today.

Rignot has studied the world's largest glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica since the early 1990s, when NASA and other international space agencies first started collecting satellite data on them.

He is best known for ground-breaking research in 2014 which revealed the rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appeared to be in an irreversible state of decline, with nothing to stop the glaciers in this area from melting into the sea.

In an interview with the Herald, Rignot said while historical measurements stretched back a century, some of the most worrying discoveries in Antarctica had come only in recent decades.

The first evidence of warmer water causing melting at Pine Island Glacier, now known to be responsible for a quarter of Antarctica's ice loss, was made in 1996.

The glacier is part of the 25 million square kilometre West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which satellite measurements estimate is losing more than 150 cubic km of ice each year.

Rignot further noted the first physical measurements of warmer water affecting the much larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet, at Totten Glacier, were recorded only in 2015.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

It's so hot in central Queensland you can fry an egg on the bonnet of your car

It is so hot in Queensland at the moment that you can literally fry an egg on the bonnet of your car.

Yesterday afternoon a Queensland police officer demonstrated the infamous trick in a video posted online by the state's police media unit as temperatures soared into the mid 40s.

Much of the East coast of the country has been sweltering in the current heatwave but spare a thought for residents in the tiny rural town of Birdsville, QLD who are suffering through an extraordinary run of heat.

Temperatures in Birdsville has surged into the 40s for 18 straight days with the mercury tipped to reach a whopping 47 degrees today, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

The town's February maximum temperature record of 46.2C is set to be broken, far exceeding the town's average February maximum is 38C.

As a number of QLD towns notched new heat records yesterday, this morning Queensland's police media unit reminded people not to undertake activities that could put emergency workers in danger.

" Call off activities like bushwalking, hiking, climbing in #heatwave. You're putting us (Queensland Fire and Emergency) at risk if we have to rescue you," authorities wrote on Twitter.

As a cooler change blows into Sydney, much of NSW is facing the most catastrophic fire danger in history as a monster hot air mass continues north. While temperatures aren't even tipped to reach 30C in Sydney today, much of NSW will remain above 40, as fire dangers reach unprecedented levels.

Friday, 10 February 2017

More than 400 whales stranded on Farewell Spit

Hundreds of whales have stranded on Farewell Spit but about 300 have died.

The Department of Conservation says 416 pilot whales stranded over night. Project Jonah has issued a Facebook alert about the mass stranding at the northern end of Golden Bay.

Project Jonah said 75 per cent of the whales were dead when rescuers arrived at first light.
Rescue efforts were focusing on refloating the remaining 100 live whales at 10.30am when high tide was due.

Some of those that survived the night stranding were already able to swim on their own.

DOC spokesman Mike Ogle said the whales had stranded on the inside beach of Farewell Spit, 1km from Triangle Flat, near Puponga.

Ogle urged as many people as possible to help refloat the whales that were still alive.


Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Abyss: underwater wonders need protection

Hidden beneath the waves, submarine canyons are deep, dramatic chasms in New Zealand's underwater landscape, sometimes plunging to depths of several kilometres.

But more needs to be done to protect these rich marine ecosystems from the myriad pressures humans are heaping on them, from fishing and litter to the extraction of oil and gas, scientists say in a new study.

Around the world, there are an estimated 10,000 of these major features of continental margins, with at least 230 found off the coast of New Zealand.

These include the 60km-long, 1.2km-deep Kaikoura Canyon, home to an abundance of life spanning from tiny plankton to the giant sperm whales they famously attract to the coast, and the Cook Strait Canyon, starting just 10km off the Wellington coast and reaching depths of 3km south of Cape Palliser.

Recent studies of canyons have boosted scientists' understanding of their ecological role, the benefits they bring to humans, and how our activities are affecting their environments.

Dr Ashley Rowden, a marine ecologist at the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (Niwa), is part of an international team of scientists that has reviewed recent studies of submarine canyons around the world.

In a study published today in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science, Rowden and his colleagues report how only 10 per cent of canyons worldwide are covered by marine protected areas (MPAs) - and these are not evenly distributed around the globe.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

El Nino could make a comeback as Australia sees Pacific warming

Less than a year after the world said goodbye to one of the strongest El Ninos on record, forecasters are predicting the weather pattern may make a comeback.

Climate models indicate the central Pacific Ocean will probably warm over coming months, suggesting neutral conditions or El Nino are the most likely scenarios for the Southern Hemisphere winter-spring period, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said.

Five models show El Nino thresholds may be reached by mid-to-late winter, it said.
The 2015-16 El Nino was the strongest since the record event of 1997-98.

The pattern reduced rainfall in the Indian monsoon, parched farmlands, and curbed production of cocoa in Ivory Coast, rice in Thailand and coffee in Indonesia. India's Skymet Weather Services said last week that El Nino showed signs of resurfacing in coming months.


Friday, 3 February 2017

Scientists hopeful about albatross numbers

Scientists just back from an annual white-capped albatross census in the remote and windswept subantarctic islands are hopeful for the welfare of the iconic endemic seabirds.

A joint expedition between the Ministry for Primary Industries, Seafood New Zealand and the Department of Conservation this month surveyed numbers of the species on their key breeding site - the Auckland Islands in the Southern Ocean, 465 kilometres south of Bluff.

An estimated 95 percent of the worldwide population of white-capped albatross breed on the Auckland Islands each year, and hundreds of thousands of birds make their way there on an epic journey from both around NZ and South Africa.

Deepwater Group scientist Richard Wells said DoC would report the census data in the coming months, but he expected the figure would fall within the bounds of previous years.

"White-capped albatross are renowned for quite large changes in birds actually breeding in any one year and it is birds actually sitting on an egg that are counted to give an index of the population," Wells said.

"There are hints that this year is one where more birds took a break from laying but were still present at the breeding sites."

This was called "loafing" by scientists and the birds were labelled "floaters" as they wandered around the colony or stand on empty nests.

"Those on an egg sit very snugly and firmly on them so can be recognised as breeders."


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Calling all visionary entrepreneurs

A new fellowship has been launched to attract global "visionary entrepreneurs" to New Zealand with up to 400 spaces available.

The Edmund Hillary Fellowship has partnered with Immigration New Zealand for the new intitiative launched today which hopes to attract 100 entrepreneurs, investors and startup teams each year. The chosen participants will be joined by up to 20 Kiwis every year.

"New Zealand has what it takes to be a global innovation hub attracting the world's best and brightest minds with our progressive policies, ease of doing business, educated population, low corruption and good relations with other countries," said Yoseph Ayele, chief executive of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship.

"With the global race for talent on as countries compete for the best, the Edmund Hillary Foundation harnesses New Zealand's natural and social advantages to offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a global impact leader, building and growing an ecosystem of bold visionaries innovating to tackle global challenges from New Zealand," he said.

"We're look for people with fresh and pioneering ideas from all different sectors."

Ayele said they have already received 350 expressions of interest from innovators, including one woman from Mexico who is developing solar powered cookers for rural communities.
The intitiative is also open to investors with industry experience who want to work alongside innovators.

"We're looking for multi-dimensional investors, not just people who put in captial," Ayele said. "People with global connections who want to invest their time as well as their money."

The fellowship is supported by Immigration New Zealand's Global Impact Visa which allows innovators to work in and live in New Zealand. Fellows will be granted a three-year open work visa which offers eligibility for residency after 30 months.

Fellows can opt to live anywhere in New Zealand if chosen for the initiative.