Top Ten Science Stories of 2016

Nature’s made herself well known in science this year, with the recent Kaikoura earthquake dominating media attention for the past month.

A plan to make New Zealand predator free and the campylobacter outbreak that sent Havelock North hurtling to the bathroom made science a crucial part of news stories this year.

As 2016 draws to a close, the Science Media Centre takes a moment to reflect back on some of the biggest national and international science stories in the news.



Kaikoura shakes with multiple faults: Many around the country were rudely awoken shortly after midnight on November 14 when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck North Canterbury. With Kaikoura residents and tourists stranded, roads mangled and an estimated 80,000 – 100,000 landslides: the effects of the massive quake will take a long time to repair.

Striking marine uplift on the coast caught a lot of media attention, while Wellington has seen many buildings closed due to earthquake risk and some due for demolition. GeoNet scientists now think at least 10 faults ruptured in the quake. What’s certain is we’ll be learning more about the science of this earthquake for a long time to come.

More from the SMC: The SMC gathered numerous comments and expert Q&As about the earthquake

Gastro outbreak in Havelock North: August saw one of the worst public health issues, certainly of the year and perhaps in recent memory. A contaminated water supply led to over a third of the small town of Havelock North being struck down with gastroenteritis, caused by the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni

An inquiry is now underway to consider the cause of the outbreak and whether any person or organisation was at fault, but will not consider criminal liability. Meanwhile, at least three people have developed reactive arthritis and another three developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome after being affected by the bug.

More from the SMC: Hawke’s Bay campylobacter outbreak – Expert reaction; Expert Q&A: Aquifers, groundwater and how contaminations can occur

young stoat in summer coat

War on predators: It was an announcement that caught many in the area by surprise – then-Prime Minister John Key (that’ll take some getting used to!) called the media to Zealandia to tell them the Government would pledge to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050.

While scientists welcomed the investment, there are still plenty of technological hurdles to leap in order to rid the mainland of the ‘big three’: possums, stoats and rats. Media attention to this topic continued apace for several weeks and carries on even now – it’s not often a conservation story gets that much limelight.

More from the SMC: Government plan for a predator-free New Zealand – Expert Reaction


Cancer drug funded: Public pressure mounted early in the year for Pharmac – the Government’s drug-funding agency – to fund the melanoma drug Keytruda. A petition of over 45,000 signatures was presented to the Health Minister in March. In June, a provisional decision was made to fund the alternate drug, Opdivo, and in August Pharmac confirmed funding for Keytruda as well. However, a study published later that month warned that the issues over Keytruda’s funding hadn’t been addressed.

More from the SMC: Push for Keytruda funding – Expert Reaction


Carbon credits a lot of hot air? Are we climate cheats? A series of reports from the Morgan Foundation this year had the finger pointed firmly back at New Zealand on the use of dodgy carbon credits from Russia and the Ukraine.

The dodgy credits were deemed ‘hot air’ because they did not represent true emissions reductions, yet New Zealand continued to trade in the cheap credits despite warnings that they were fradulent. The report’s second instalment, published in August, named the 12 New Zealand companies that traded in these dodgy credits.

More from the SMC: Is New Zealand a climate cheat? Expert Reaction; Report points finger at ‘climate cheats’ – Expert Reaction


Meth houses: It’s an easy hit, pardon the pun, for media – the fear around meth-contaminated houses and the cost of cleaning up affected state housing. But experts have cautioned there’s more to the story, with a very different risk factor for a home where methamphetamine was smoked versus a house used to manufacture ‘P’.

New guidelines released by the Ministry of Health in October distinguish between use and manufacture, which will go toward developing a new standard for cleaning up properties contaminated by use only.

More from the SMC: Meth-contaminated homes, what’s the risk? Expert Reaction


Cross-hairs on sugary drinks: We may look back on 2016 as the year that scientists took the fight to sugar, especially sugary drinks. With the UK pushing ahead with legislation to bring in a sugar tax, more attention has turned to sugar in New Zealand and whether we ought to be following suit.

In September, the Royal Society of New Zealand released its expert advice on sugar, finding that excess sugar was harmful to health and difficult to avoid. Public health researchers working under the name “FIZZ” have pushed for a sugary-drink free NZ and launched a ‘no sugary drinks‘ logo to encourage organisations to show their commitment to the cause. Now the NZ Dental Association is on board too, with a consensus statement calling for better labelling and guidelines for sugar in food.

More from the SMC: Should NZ copy the UK sugar tax? Expert Reaction


Ross Sea protected: It took years to get an agreement, but finally Antarctica’s Ross Sea has been granted a marine protected area (MPA), which will cover roughly 1.55 million square kilometres. At its annual meeting in Hobart in October, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) unanimously agreed to the proposal from New Zealand and the United States.

The protected area will enter into force on December 1, 2017 and it comes at the end of years of negotiations: the MPA was first raised with CCAMLR in 2012 and scientists were sorely disappointed when it was initially turned down.

More from the SMC: Ross Sea gets protected area – In the News


Mahia, the final frontier: Auckland company Rocket Lab didn’t quite get off the ground in 2016, but its 17 metre Electron rocket passed a battery of tests and will soon be shipped to the Mahia Peninsula for a maiden test launch early next year. Rocket Lab has designed and built most of the rocket components itself aiming for a cost-effective way to deliver satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit. Each launch will cost around US$5 million, significantly undercutting rivals overseas. Rocket Lab’s space aspirations sparked the introduction of a new law, the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Bill, which will provide a legal framework for high-altitude activities that originate from New Zealand.

More from the SMC: Prepare for takeoff: rocket launch site opens – In the News

bubbles of water in water in motion

Fluoride headed for DHB control: In April, the Government proposed shifting control of water fluoridation schemes from local authorities to district health boards, sparking controversy in some communities where fluoridation is opposed. While the safety and health benefits of fluoridation are well established, local councils have faced legal challenges to suspend the practice. The Health (Fluoridation of Drinking Water Amendment Bill) has had its first reading in Parliament and is currently open for public submissions.

More from the SMC: DHBs to control water fluoridation – In the News





Zika virus: As if we didn’t have enough reasons to dislike mozzies – international attention has been focused this year on Zika virus and its mosquito vectors. For a while, it seemed there was new Zika news every week, from its link to microcephaly in babies born to infected mothers, the likely sexual transmission of the virus and now the proposal to use genetically modified mosquitoes to battle the virus in the Florida Keys.

There was speculation about whether the Rio Olympics should go ahead, given the threat of Zika and several high-profile athletes pulling out, but in the end, it all went off without a hitch – unless you were Ryan Lochte, of course.

More from the SMC: Expert Q&A: Zika virus and the Rio Olympics; Zika virus may be carried by mosquito found in NZ – Expert Reaction; Pacific origins for Brazil Zika outbreak? Expert Reaction


Gravitational Waves found: Einstein deserved a posthumous pat on the back after his predicted gravitational waves were found 100 years after his general theory of relativity. The news out of LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in the US) had been fiercely speculated upon, before its official announcement in February.

Physicists say the waves detected by LIGO were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, massive spinning black hole. University of Canterbury’s Emeritus Professor Roy Kerr predicted the collision of black holes but it had never been observed…until now.

More from the SMC: Gravitational waves found – Expert Reaction


Driverless cars and safety: The technology around driverless cars has proceeded full throttle, but 2016 could also be seen as the year we’ve questioned their safety.

Tesla announced in July that a driver in one of its self-driving cars died in a crash in May. Last year, hackers demonstrated the ability to take over the controls of self-driving vehicles, which has cybersecurity experts expecting more of the same as the cars become more common.

A paper published in June also questioned the morality of autonomous cars – in a choice between killing a passenger or a pedestrian, what should the car do?  Good questions to work out before we all jump on the driverless car bandwagon.

More from the SMC: Who to kill? The dilemma of driverless cars – Expert Reaction


Shrinking ozone hole: Well at least we’ve done one thing right – a study published in July found, after persisting for decades, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has begun to ‘heal’. In 1987, virtually every country in the world signed on to the Montreal Protocol to ban the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) after scientists worked out the chemicals were depleting ozone.

In October this year, nearly 200 countries signed on to an amendment to the Montreal Protocol which will address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – harmful greenhouse gases. Reduced HFC emissions could prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, according to predictions.

More from the SMC: Ozone hole on the mend – Expert Reaction


World welcomes first kid with three parents: News broke in September that a child born in April was the first baby born with DNA from three parents. The Jordanian parents contacted researchers at New York’s New Hope Fertility Centre after discovering the mother had a rare mitochondrial disease – Leigh syndrome – which she had passed on to two children, both of whom died from the disease.

The researchers took donor mitochondrial DNA and combined it with the mother’s nuclear DNA and the father’s sperm. The birth was reported in a conference abstract, which caused a furore as scientists worried about the ethics of the news: the technique used is not approved in the United States, so the researchers went to Mexico instead. It has recently been approved for use in the UK, so the three-parent baby may not be on their own for long.

More from the SMC: World’s first three-parent baby – Expert Reaction

Coffee cup on a day window background

Coffee gets a cautious all-clear, but let it cool down first: The World Health Organisation’s cancer agency has found no conclusive evidence that coffee causes cancer (which really we all needed after last year’s bacon disaster), but drinking very hot drinks probably raises the risk of cancer of the oesophagus.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) came under fire last year for its confusing statements around the bowel cancer risks from eating bacon and other processed meats. Its gentle touch on coffee was appreciated by caffeine addicts around the world.

More from the SMC: ‘Very hot’ drinks probably cause cancer, coffee redeemed – Expert Reaction


Juno’s Jupiter jaunt: Well if you travelled somewhere for five years, you’d probably want a party upon arrival too. NASA’s spacecraft Juno made it to Jupiter after travelling 2.8 billion kilometres of space – including a slingshot around Earth for a speed boost – and received a hearty hurrah from those back home.

Juno will stick around Jupiter until January 2018, when it will be “de-orbited” so it burns up in Jupiter’s atmosphere (instead of causing potential biological contamination on one of the gas giant’s moons). Enjoy it while it lasts, Juno!

More from the SMC: Juno spacecraft reaches Jupiter – In the News


Climate change making itself felt: 2015 was, at the time, the hottest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880 – but 2016 is looking set to smash that record yet again. The Arctic sea ice reached record lows in November – retreating at the time of year the region enters winter – while scientists are learning more about Antarctica’s glaciers, and it’s not good. Glaciers such as West Antarctica’s Pine Island are cracking and a new study found the retreat had begun way back in the 1940s.

A Royal Society of New Zealand report in April found that the effects of climate change were already underway in New Zealand, and would accelerate this century unless drastic actions were taken. Last week, a study suggested climate change had already caused hundreds of small-scale local extinctions around the world. So while we can pat ourselves on the back for ratifying the Paris Agreement, the hard work is still ahead of us.

More from the SMC: Hottest year on record – Expert Reaction


Buzz over Earth-like planet: The news was too good to keep a tight lid on – rumours were flying in lead-up to a publication about Proxima b: an Earth-like planet spotted orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun.

Proxima b is about 1.3 times the mass of Earth and just over four light years away. It orbits close enough to its star to allow liquid water to exist on its surface, which has scientists excited that even if Proxima b isn’t hospitable to life, perhaps we’re getting closer to finding an exoplanet that is.

More from the SMC: Earth-like planet around the Sun’s closest neighbour – Expert Reaction


Politics and science: Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the political upheavals that 2016 will be remembered for and the potential effects they could have on science.

June’s Brexit vote in the UK will see Britain split from the European Union, at some future date as yet unconfirmed. In the immediate aftermath, scientists worried about what the change would mean for long-term research funding and international collaboration.

It’s not all bad in the Commonwealth, though. In Canada, newly-elected prime minister Justin Trudeau moved immediately to create a Minister of Science position and is currently looking for a national science advisor. A sea change from Stephen Harper’s government, under which Canadian scientists complained of being muzzled.

But as President-elect Donald Trump begins naming members of his staff – including a climate change sceptic to lead the EPA transition team – scientists are concerned what his presidency will bring, especially for health care and climate change.

Perhaps David Bowie really was holding the fabric of society together. In any case, adieu 2016 – let’s see what 2017 brings with it.

More from the SMC network: Brexit – what does it mean for science? Expert Reaction; UK SMC’s Fiona Fox – Reflections on the referendum; What might Trump mean for Science – In the News

Image credits: All courtesy of istock other than: Mahia, the final frontier – Rocket Lab; Gravitational waves found – SXS; Ozone hole healing – MIT; Juno’s Jupiter jaunt – NASA; Proxima b – artist’s impression, ESO/M. Kornmesser.