Top Ten Science Stories of 2017

Who would’ve thought freshwater would be a major election issue this year?

Alongside the tragic deaths from synthetic drugs, freshwater, biosecurity, earthquakes and volcanoes have all made a show in the year’s top science stories.

Some of last year’s stories have continued to draw headlines, including the Kaikōura earthquake, Havelock North campylobacter outbreak and Predator Free 2050

As 2017 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.


Synthetic drug deaths: In July, Police issued a warning about a synthetic drug on the market that at that stage had led to the deaths of at least seven people. By September, there were 20 suspected deaths and ESR scientists had confirmed the samples contained the chemical AMB-FUBINACA, which had been linked to a ‘Zombie Outbreak’ in New York in 2016.

The synthetic cannabinoid is reported to have effects 75 times stronger than THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis. In 2013, the sale of psychoactive substances was banned unless proven safe in humans.

More from the SMC: What is AMB-FUBINACA? – Expert Q&APolice issue warning about synthetic cannabis – Expert Reaction

Port Hills burn: 
For a few days in February, Cantabrians watched as their beloved Port Hills were blanketed in smoke. Two separate fires, one possibly lit intentionally, joined together into a raging wildfire that took over 60 days to fully extinguish. Nine houses were destroyed and a helicopter pilot died while fighting the fire.

Ecologists have called for lessons from the fire to be heeded in replanting efforts, by quickly re-planting with indigenous, fire-resistant species rather than letting fire-prone exotics like gorse and broom take over again.

More from the SMC: Highly flammable vegetation helps fuel Port Hills fire – Expert ReactionThe Port Hills, a love story – Sciblogs

Māhia, we have liftoff: In May, New Zealand belatedly entered the Space Race when Rocket Lab successfully launched from its test pad on the Māhia Peninsula. While the rocket didn’t quite make it to orbit, it was hailed as a major achievement for the company, which hopes to run a commercial operation delivering satellites to low orbit.

At the time of writing, Rocket Lab was lining up a ten-day window for a second test from the Māhia launchpad, which would be live-streamed for the public. This time around, its payload would include three satellites it hoped to get into orbit.

More from the SMC: Rocket Lab and its efforts to launch NZ into space game — Expert Q&ARocket Lab achieves liftoff — Expert Reaction

Dam appeal rejected: The Supreme Court denied an appeal in July to allow a land swap for the proposed Ruataniwha Dam projects in the Hawke’s Bay. The scheme would have flooded 22 hectares of conservation land in Ruahine Forest Park, which the Department of Conservation had reclassified as stewardship land and planned to swap with 170ha of private farm land.

Forest and Bird led a legal challenge against the deal, which would have created a reservoir for the irrigation of more than 25,000 hectares in the region. The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has since pulled its financial support for the dam project and written off the $14 million already spent on planning and resource consents.

More from the SMC: Supreme Court rejects Ruataniwha appeal – Expert Reaction

What even is a swimmable river? As we head into summer, some rivers and lakes are already unswimmable because of algal blooms. So the question of how fit our freshwater bodies are for swimming is at the front of people’s minds and the issue was a major talking point in this year’s general election

From swimmability, to taxes on bottled water, and stock exclusion fencing, freshwater policies were flying in the lead-up to September’s election. The National Government’s announcement of its Clean Water Package in February led to confusion about targets and whether goalposts were being shifted. Meanwhile, the OECD warned that New Zealand’s growth was starting to show environmental limits, including freshwater contamination.

More from the SMC: Toxic algal blooms in NZ – Expert Q&AElection 2017 – SMC science Q&A with political partiesOur fresh water 2017 – Expert Reaction; OECD rates NZ’s environmental performance – Expert Reaction

Biosecurity incursions: As recently as April, myrtle rust was spotted on Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, over 1000km from mainland New Zealand. Now it has been found in several North Island regions, including Auckland and Wellington, and sightings may increase over the summer months.

Stewart Island oyster farms were pulled out after the parasite Bonamia ostreae was discovered, putting the Foveaux Strait oyster fishery at risk. The parasite was first found in New Zealand in 2015 but this was the first time it was detected outside of the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson. 

But it doesn’t stop there, in July MPI confirmed the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovishad been found on two South Canterbury farms. The bacterial disease is common internationally but this is the first time it has been found in New Zealand. 

In Auckland, kauri dieback continues to spread, with infection rates in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park doubling in five years. A rāhui has been placed on the park by local iwi in an attempt to prevent further spread, but in December the Auckland Council opted to close high-risk tracks rather than close the park entirely.

More from the SMC: Myrtle rust discovered on Raoul Island – Expert ReactionOyster disease Bonamia ostreae – Expert Q&ACattle disease found in NZ – Expert Q&AKauri dieback in the Waitakere Ranges — Expert Reaction

Kaikōura quake’s complexities: It’s a big deal in the research world to be published in the journal Science, and in April, GNS Science’s work on the Kaikōura earthquake not only made the grade but was the cover story. Their research suggests the magnitude 7.8 earthquake was the most violent ever recorded in New Zealand, ruptured up to 21 faults and might entirely change the way we think about earthquake hazards on plate boundary zones.

Other major findings from the quake continue to accumulate. In October, researchers showed that the Kēkerengū Fault ruptured twice during the shake. The earthquake also triggered slow-slip earthquakes under parts of the North Island, some of which have continued to move a year later.

More from the SMC: Rethink of hazards after Kaikōura earthquake – Expert Reaction

Vaccination’s good and bad news: At that start of the year, Gardasil – the vaccination for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) – was made freely available for boys and men between the ages of 9 and 26. The uptake has been higher than expected, so much so that in conjunction with a supply issue the stocks of the vaccination briefly ran low.

But the vaccination news isn’t all good: immunisation rates have dropped in some areas, which has lead to outbreaks of measles, mumps, chicken pox and whooping cough around the country. 2014’s New Zealander of the Year Dr Lance O’Sullivan courted controversy when he took the stage at a screening of Vaxxed to protest the anti-vaccination rhetoric.

More from the SMC: HPV vaccine now funded for boys – Expert Q&AMedia coverage of HPV vaccine increased reports of adverse events – Expert ReactionMumps outbreak in AucklandTyphoid outbreak in Auckland

Our very own continent? Australasia no longer! Geologists made a case for an eighth continent ‘Zealandia’ in February and news of the addition shot around the globe. First proposed in 1995, it’s taken some time for the idea of Zealandia to take off, in large part because some 93 per cent of it is submerged by the Pacific Ocean. It’s hard to get behind something you can’t see.

Over the past six months, scientists aboard the Joides Resolution have been further exploring Zealandia, which stretches about 4.9 million square kilometres and rises above the ocean at New Zealand, Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe group and some sub-Antarctic islands.

More from the SMC: Explorers probe hidden continent of Zealandia – Sciblogs

Weather-related disasters: Eight months on from April’s floods, some Edgecumbe residents are still out of their homes and waiting for repairs. Heavy rain from the remnants of Cyclone Debbie led to Rangitāiki River breaching the town’s stopbank, giving residents mere minutes to evacuate their homes.

In December, the Insurance Brokers Association warned that premiums were expected to rise after a record $242 million in weather-related claims this year, with climate change the likely culprit. Cyclone Debbie left $91.5m of damaged property in its wake, while South Island flooding in late July racked up $31.2m in claims and the Port Hills fires cost $18.3m.

More from the SMC: Cyclone Cook and flooding – Expert Q&AClimate change and insurance – Expert Reaction2017 set to be another scorcher – Expert reaction




Gravitational Waves continue to make waves: Last year’s detection of Einstein-predicted gravitational waves continued to rock the physics world this year, with the LIGO/Virgo team honoured with a Nobel Prize.

Weeks later, just to keep things interesting, the research team announced yet another discovery: they recorded the collision of two neutron stars and proved gravitational waves move at the speed of light. Scientists also figured out the resulting fireball of gamma rays from the collision created heavy elements like lead and gold.

More from the SMC: Gravitational waves detected from two neutron stars colliding – Expert Reaction

Gene editing humans: Since CRISPR-Cas9 crashed into the science world a few years ago it has suddenly brought the sci-fi dream of manipulating genes to reality. This year has seen two major jumps in progress toward using the gene editing technique in humans.

In August, following speculation in the media, US scientists published a study in which they used CRISPR in human embryos to remove a mutation linked to a heritable heart condition. Last month, a 44-year-old US man became the first person to have a gene edited inside his body. He lacks an enzyme to break down a certain type of carbohydrate, which builds up in the body leaving many patients requiring a wheelchair. Researchers could know if the treatment is working within a few months. It appears the Brave New World is upon us.

More from the SMC: CRISPR used to edit embryos — Expert Reaction

Antarctic iceberg breaks away: It had been a wait-and-watch game for scientists keeping an eye on an Antarctic iceberg that looked set to break away. Larsen C, in the Weddell Sea, caught media attention over the last southern summer as a giant crack spread across the ice shelf. 

In July, Larsen C followed in the wake of its neighbours – Larsens A and B – when a one trillion tonne iceberg calved away from the ice shelf. Now that summer and daylight have returned to Antarctica, researchers will be able to track the iceberg’s fate as the sea ice breaks up, potentially allowing it to move away from the ice shelf.

More from the SMC: Larsen C iceberg breaks away – Expert Reaction

Oldest evidence of life on land: Charles Darwin once suggested that life on Earth likely began in a “warm little pond”, and in May Australian and New Zealand scientists found evidence to support his theory. Ancient hot springs deposits in the Pilbara contained 3.48 billion-year-old fossils, showing there was life on land billions of years earlier than we previously had records for.

Comparing the fossils to similar rocks from Rotorua led the research team to conclude that the hot springs once held a diverse range of life, lending weight to the idea that life might have developed in and around hydrothermal vents.

More from the SMC: Oldest evidence of life on land found in 3.48 billion-year-old Australian rocks – Scimex

Cassini’s fiery demise: In September we bid arrivederci to Cassini, the NASA spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn for 13 years. Launched from Florida in 1997, the Cassini/Huygens mission has sent back stunning images of the ringed planet along with thrilling insights of two of its moons: Titan and Enceladus.

Those findings included the possibility that one of the moons could harbour liquid water – thought to be the most likely medium in which life could evolve – so rather than risk Cassini crashing into one of the moons and contaminating it, it was deliberately plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up. 

More from the SMC: Cassini’s grand Saturn finale – Expert ReactionCassini’s grand finale nears – Expert Reaction

Bevy of Earth-like planets: Fancy finding not just one Earth-like planet, but seven in one shot. NASA announced in February it had found a seven-planet solar system about 40 light years away and three of the planets appeared to be in the so-called ‘habitable zone’. 

Since the initial announcement, more information has come to light about the TRAPPIST-1 system: it’s up to twice as old as our own solar system, which might tantalising mean there’s been plenty of time for life to evolve, unless the planets’ atmospheres have boiled off in the meantime.

More from the SMC: NASA discovers 7-planet solar system

Trump pulls out of Paris: It was the news most climate scientists and policymakers had been expecting: in June, US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. He described the deal, which was struck in late 2015, as one that “hamstrings” the US while empowering top polluters.

Now we look to other global leaders – including China and the EU – to take the lead on climate change action, while US states like California continue to set their own climate agenda. In New Zealand, the Labour-led Government has pledged to set targets for a Zero Carbon Act in its first 100 days and plans to set up an independent climate commission.

More from the SMC: Trump pulls out of Paris Agreement – Expert Reaction

Extreme hurricanes in the Atlantic: Trump might want to re-consider that stance on climate change action, given his country was walloped by hurricanes this season. Hurricane Harvey, which flooded parts of Houston, was followed in quick succession by Irma, Jose and Katia, so for the first time since 2010, there were three active hurricanes in the Atlantic simultaneously.

Climate change models predict such storms will become fewer but more intense and may travel further toward Europe, as with Hurricane Ophelia, which made landfall in Ireland in October.

More from the SMC: Hurricane Irma – UK SMC Expert ReactionHurricane Ophelia – UK SMC Expert ReactionHurricane Irma hitting Florida – UK SMC Expert ReactionHurricane Harvey – UK SMC Expert Reaction

Legal stoush over sick bub: A sick child in the UK drew international attention over the legal battle between parents’ wishes and medical decisions. Charlie Gard was born with a mitochondrial disease that causes progressive brain damage and muscle failure; it usually results in death in infancy, but a New York neurologist had offered to try out an experimental treatment.

Following a series of seizures early in the year, his UK doctors advised Charlie’s parents to consider ending life support. His parents maintained they wanted to try the experimental treatment and the case went to the High Court, attracting comments from Donald Trump and the Pope, before the neurologist also declared it was too late to treat the infant. Charlie was removed from life support in July and died the next day, shortly before his first birthday.

More from the SMC: Why we need scientists on Charlie Gard – UK SMC blog

Bali volcano erupts: The Pacific Ring of Fire has been busy this year, with volcanic activity in Bali, Vanuatu and Mexico. A mass evacuation was ordered from Vanuatu’s Ambae Island following an eruption in September.

Over two months after unusual activity was first detected at Bali’s Mount Agung, the volcano finally erupted in late November, disrupting tourism and putting thousands of villagers in danger. New Zealand volcanologists have a particular interest in Mt Agung as it has similarities to Mt Taranaki.

More from the SMC network: Volcanic activity in the Pacific Ring of Fire – Expert ReactionMt Agung eruption – Expert Reaction

All images public domain except Synthetic drug deaths – istock. Image credits: Port Hills burn – CC Ross Younger; Māhia, we have liftoff – Rocket Lab; Dam appeal rejected, Kaikōura quake’s complexities – CC Ulrich Lange; Vaccination’s good and bad news – frankieleon/FlickrCC; Our very own continent? – NOAA; Gravitational waves – NSF LIGO Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet; Antarctic iceberg breaks away – NASA; Oldest evidence of life on land – UNSW; Cassini’s fiery demise, Bevvy of Earth-like planets – NASA; Extreme hurricanes in the Atlantic – NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Legal stoush over sick bub – CC Nigel Cox; Bali volcano erupts – CC Michael W. Ishak.