Two giant science stories dominated this year’s headlines – as we grappled with the growing urgency of the climate crisis, while the COVID-19 pandemic continued.
The year also saw fake news, plastic pollution, Tonga’s eruption, major reforms of NZ services, and staggering new images from space.
Here are our picks for some of the most significant science stories that made the headlines. Feel free to republish or re-purpose this content.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
THREE OMICRON WAVES, ONE VARIANT SOUP
Year three of the COVID-19 pandemic saw three Omicron waves with a three-phase plan aiming to slow – not stop – virus spread. In Autumn, most schools had cases, and experts flagged concerns about the possible longer-term effects on kids and teens.
After the winter wave, the Government dropped most remaining protective measures and more than half of Kiwis were thought to have had at least one infection. As predicted from the outset, the pandemic’s harms fell unevenly with Māori and Pasifika populations hardest hit. Dr Clive Aspin said the consequences “will affect Māori for generations to come”.
By Spring, the Omicron variant had snowballed into a “soup” of newer, more transmissible subvariants led by BA.2.75, forecast to fuel further waves. Subvariants were able to evolve globally because earlier waves “were not met by strong public health action”, Dr Joep de Ligt said.
As the year comes to a close, Covid cases are climbing again and Aotearoa’s third wave is casting a shadow over summer holiday plans. People who had so far eluded the virus – including older people and those with chronic health conditions – are expected to make up more cases, adding to the pressure on health services. Experts are urging people to hold Christmas parties outdoors, to mask up, and to take RAT tests before family get-togethers to try to curb this wave.
More from the SMC: Three-phase plan for Omicron – Expert Reaction; How can Kiwis size up the Omicron threat? – Expert Reaction; Covid-19 school spread speeds up – Expert Reaction; Two years since NZ first locked down – Expert Reaction; How many New Zealanders haven’t caught Covid-19? – Expert Q&A; The end of the Covid-19 Protection Framework – Expert Reaction; Extraordinary COVID-19 powers wound down – Expert Reaction; Will new Covid-19 subvariants fuel the next wave? – Expert Reaction; Catching Covid-19 more than once – Expert Q&A; How to avoid spreading Covid this Christmas – Expert Reaction
Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash
NOT GETTING BETTER: THE LONG COVID TAIL
Research ballooned globally on the parallel pandemic of Long Covid and reported flow-on problems for the “safe functioning” of health and education systems. Studies found “significant” impacts on the brain, and heart problems, up to a year after being infected with the COVID-19 virus.
In May, Aotearoa experts gave advice on ways to limit Long Covid here, like resting up and avoiding pushing through after an infection, and introducing tailored services for affected people. Even if the number hit is lower than expected, Dr Anna Brooks warned, the sheer number of people infected with Omicron will mean “a significant health and economic burden”.
As reinfections rose, concerns built over the consequences of catching COVID more than once. New research found the risk of ongoing health harms may rise with each repeat infection. But early research – still under review – suggests that antiviral drugs may lessen the chance of winding up with post-Covid health problems.
More from the SMC: Could NZ limit long Covid? – Expert Reaction; A big week for Long Covid research – In the News; EXPERT REACTION: “Significant” brain changes documented after mild COVID-19; COVID-19 linked to later heart problems – even for milder cases; What are your chances of death or long-term symptoms six months after catching COVID?
Image by Callum Shaw on Unsplash
CURBING CLIMATE CHANGE BY CUTTING EMISSIONS
Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels are forecast to rise by 1% this year, putting an end to the cuts made in 2020. In April, the IPCC released a report outlining how we can reduce and remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, saying that unless emissions peak before 2025, the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is “beyond reach”.
New Zealand’s first plan for how to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050 came out in May, and while some experts were “cautiously optimistic”, others felt that vital immediacy was lacking. Also on the agenda was the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), as the Climate Change Commission recommended “significant” changes. One expert called this a strong response to the climate crisis, which asks for “a marked strengthening” of the ETS.
Farming alliance He Waka Eke Noa put forward its preferred system for how farmers will pay for their emissions. The Climate Change Commission agreed a farm-level approach is fairer: farmers get credit for improvements they make. However, experts said the Commission questions whether this approach will be ready in time to meet 2025 and 2030 goals.
As October rolled around, the Government proposed a plan of action for farmers to reduce their emissions, mostly taking on board the agricultural sector’s recommended farm-level pricing, as well as the Climate Change Commission’s advice.
More from the SMC: He Waka Eke Noa pricing proposal for farm emissions – Expert Reaction; The Climate Commission’s take on farm emissions pricing – Expert Reaction; The Climate Commission’s advice on the Emissions Trading Scheme – Expert Reaction; The Government’s proposal to price agricultural emissions – Expert Reaction
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
EFFORTS TO ADAPT TO OUR EVER-WARMER WORLD
In 2022, the effects of climate change were tangibly felt worldwide, and while scientists discovered more and more about how it will affect the environment – from acidifying our oceans to widening termite habitats and aging our lizards – the question of how humans must adapt to climate change came to the fore.
In August, the New Zealand Government released its plan to deal with rising seas, increasing heat, and extreme weather, highlighting the importance of Māori leadership, community engagement and indigenous knowledge in the adaptation process.
Ahead of COP27, many experts had low expectations and raised concerns about a lack of international leadership, but the marathon negotiations did produce an historic agreement to establish a “loss and damage fund” for small nations vulnerable to climate change.
Still, some experts highlighted that this agreement came at the expense of mitigation efforts, and one pointed out that much of what’s being talked about under ‘loss and damage’ can already be financed through existing programmes.
“Creating a new basket with a new label does not and will not increase the total funds available,” he said.
More from the SMC: European heatwave – Global SMC Expert Reaction; Climate change now makes every heatwave worse – In the News; What the European heatwave means for NZ – In The News; How NZ can adapt to climate change, according to the IPCC – SMC Briefing; The state of our marine environment – Expert Reaction; Climate change could widen termite habitats – Expert Reaction; Could native lizards be born “old” as the climate warms? – Expert Reaction; NZ’s first Climate Adaptation Plan – Expert Reaction; Indigenous knowledge and climate adaptation – Expert Reaction; Looking ahead to COP27 – Expert Reaction; COP27 comes to a close – Expert Reaction
Image by NoName_13 from Pixabay
FIGHTING FAKE NEWS AND CORRALLING CONSPIRACIES
An extraordinary protest at Parliament kicked off the year, drawing much media and public attention. Disinformation researchers were hot on its heels, tracking the mis- and disinformation activity going on online before and after the event.
Superspreading of false information was documented by just 12 clusters or groups – a Disinformation Dozen, responsible for 3 in 4 interactions in the mis/disinformation networks on the protest’s final day. The researchers said New Zealand must act to address this problem – as conspiracy thinking continues.
An international study highlighted one possible solution: short videos to explain common manipulation techniques used online may make people less likely to fall for fake news.
More from the SMC: NZ’s “disinformation dozen” fuel fake news at Parliament protest – In The News; NZ’s “disinformation dozen” drove three-quarters of fake news chatter on Parliament protest’s final day; Improving our resilience to online misinformation – Expert Reaction
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash
HISTORIC MOMENTS FOR PLASTIC POLLUTION
In a world-first, Kiwi researchers pinpointed the presence of microplastics in Antarctic snow, meaning they’ve now been spotted in every continent on Earth. Experts said they were “likely sourced” mostly from nearby research stations. Dr Holly Winton said the work throws up “time-critical” questions on how microplastics might influence wildlife, atmospheric processes and climate.
Yet in an “historic moment“, 175 countries moved towards ending plastic pollution, committing to a draft legally-binding treaty by 2024. New Zealand experts said this was an important step but extensive work remains to be done. One called plastic pollution one of our planet’s “triple threats“, along with climate change and biodiversity loss – saying much collaboration will be needed regionally and globally for all three threats.
More from the SMC: First microplastics found in Antarctic snow – Expert Reaction; EXPERT REACTION: First microplastics found in Antarctic snow; Nations make historic commitment to tackle plastic pollution – Expert Reaction
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.
STARTLING NEW SNAPSHOTS OF SPACE
The Photo of the Year award goes to NASA, which in July released some of the deepest and highest-resolution images of the universe that have ever been seen. The pics were the first to be captured by the next-level James Webb Space Telescope, just launched last year.
Planetary astronomer Dr Michele Bannister said the new images “give us exquisite new detail on events at scales both small and vast”. Incredibly, the images show supermassive black holes eating material in distant galaxies and “the delicate traceries of dust” around the birthplaces of new stars.
More from the SMC: James Webb Telescope’s first pictures – Expert Reaction
MONKEYPOX MIGRATES TO NZ
In May, the monkeypox virus was picked up in overseas countries, and by July it predictably arrived on New Zealand’s shores. Community transmission of the virus was confirmed early in October, with experts assuring the public the virus posed no major threat – as it can be easily managed with early diagnosis and testing.
More from the SMC: Monkeypox cases spreading overseas – Expert Reaction; Monkeypox: A global health emergency – Expert Q&A; NZ’s first cases of monkeypox – Expert Reaction; Community transmission of monkeypox in New Zealand – Expert Reaction
TONGA ERUPTION SENDS SHOCK WAVES WORLDWIDE
As the year began, the submarine volcano Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai erupted, producing 20km-high ash plumes and destructive tsunami waves in Tonga. At the time, Dr Emily Lane said the eruption was “very significant“, sparking a visible shock wave in satellite imagery and being heard at least as far away as New Zealand.
A large global study involving Kiwi researchers came out in May, revealing that scientists were able to detect traces of the eruption for six days after the Tonga volcano blew. The team’s world-first recording of an “exceptionally rare” shock wave showed this wave signal circled the whole globe at least four times in the first week after the volcano erupted.
More from the SMC: Tonga undersea eruption and tsunami – Expert Reaction; Tongan disaster relief and recovery – Expert Reaction; EXPERT REACTION: Tonga eruption caused “exceptionally rare” pressure wave – lasting 6 days
Image by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW; A YEAR OF REFORMS
2022 marked a turning point for many of the country’s key services, with mega shake-ups for research, resource management, water oversight, and the entire health system.
The system that supports New Zealand’s researchers and innovators is set for a revamp, detailed in a December white paper. One expert said that if the plan’s fresh ideas are properly funded, “then it could be transformative”.
Also in December, Parliament passed the Three Waters law, which will overhaul how drinking, waste and stormwater are handled. Scientists spelled out what’s behind the scenes in our water systems, and gave their take on the current landscape.
Two new resource management bills aim to replace the RMA, together with a later third bill on climate adaptation. Speeding up the resource consenting process, cutting costs, and boosting environmental protections are what’s hoped for from these changes.
And the health system saw a seismic shift from 1 July this year – the 20 District Health Boards were swapped for a centralised model of healthcare.
More from the SMC: Major makeover for NZ science system – Expert Reaction; The basics of NZ’s water infrastructure – Expert Reaction; New water organisations to be owned locally – Expert Reaction; Three Waters reform could cost $185 billion – Expert Reaction; RMA reforms revealed – Expert Reaction