2023 started with record-breaking rains, and Cyclone Gabrielle hit soon after. Once the immediate emergency was over the focus turned to recovery, adaptation, and building resilience.
Climate change and Covid-19 continued to cause concern, and there was controversy over a release of treated nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, tension over deep sea mining, and discussion about the risks and benefits of AI.
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.
EXTREME RAINS IN A WARMING WORLD
Aotearoa was jolted by the back-to-back impacts of extreme weather at the start of 2023. Auckland experienced a record-breaking deluge of rain in January before Cyclone Gabrielle hit soon after. The devastation wreaked by the cyclone prompted the government to declare a national state of emergency for only the third time in New Zealand history. A recovery taskforce was created to cover issues related to managed retreat, including who pays for it – as well as other climate adaptation and resilience issues. Forestry slash and overall landuse on the east coast soon came under the spotlight given how the storm washed out woody debris on the east coast, piling up against bridges and across roads. Months later, a Ministerial Inquiry into Land Use report made numerous recommendations, including planting permanent native trees on erosion-prone land, restricting clear-felling of commercial forests, and building more resilient infrastructure.
More from the SMC: Extreme rainfall in a warming world – Expert Reaction; Making homes safe after floods – Expert Reaction; The impact of back-to-back storms – Expert Reaction; What’s fuelling Cyclone Gabrielle? – Expert Reaction; National state of emergency activated for the third time in history – Expert Reaction; Telecommunications taken out by Cyclone Gabrielle – Expert Reaction; Building back better after Cyclone Gabrielle – Expert Reaction; Forestry slash to be reviewed after repeated flood destruction – Expert Reaction; How to get the most out of limited reception – Expert Reaction; Disaster fatigue as more rain forecast for cyclone-hit areas – Expert Reaction; Tonnes of sediment moved by floodwaters – Expert Reaction; Cyclone taskforce will tackle managed retreat – Expert Reaction; Torrential downpours flood North Island – Expert Reaction; Cyclone Gabrielle slash and land-use inquiry – Expert Reaction; Govt and councils buying out flood affected properties – Expert Reaction
Photo by Dylan Shaw on Unsplash
ANTARCTICA’S DISAPPEARING FUTURE
New Zealand and international scientists continued to sound distressing alarms over the future of Antarctica in the face of climate change. In October, New Zealand researchers called for an immediate and dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions given Antarctic sea ice was around 20% lower than normal for that time of year – the missing ice would normally cover an area about 10 times the size of Aotearoa. Other research published earlier this year pointed to how extreme events from climate change have influenced every realm in Antarctica, including breeding failures of entire penguin colonies, ice shelf collapse, invasion of non-native plants, and the recent lack of winter sea ice.
More from the SMC: Antarctica’s deep ocean circulation is slowing down – Expert Reaction; Climate change is taking a toll on every aspect of Antarctica – Expert Reaction; Melting glaciers could create new ecosystems – Expert Reaction; NZ scientists sound alarm over Antarctic sea ice lows – SMC Briefing
Image by Glen Carrie on Unsplash
OUR NEW COVID REALITY
The Government removed all remaining COVID-19 requirements to wear masks and isolate in August, but experts still advised taking precautions to lower one’s chances of getting infected or spreading the virus in the first place. The virus is now established as New Zealand’s leading infectious disease killer, followed by influenza. Building on the lessons learned from the first three years of the pandemic, experts also called for a single, comprehensive strategy to tackle all serious respiratory infections, including influenza and RSV. This includes key measures such as improving indoor air quality, increasing sick leave support, masking in healthcare settings and exploring the advantages and disadvantages of mandating masks on public transport, especially in winter.
More from the SMC: Does NZ need a bivalent booster? – Expert Reaction; Lack of support for those with Long COVID – Expert Reaction; Pfizer vaccine available for some under-5s – Expert Reaction; What would happen if Covid isolation was no longer mandatory in New Zealand? – Expert Reaction; Covid-19 isolation rules remain – Expert Reaction; Taking breaks to stay Covid-safe – Expert Reaction; All COVID-19 requirements removed – Expert Reaction; Combining public health measures kept us safe from COVID-19 – Expert Reaction; Experts call for comprehensive mitigation strategy for Covid-19, RSV & influenza – Expert Reaction
Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos from Unsplash
MURKY WATERS OF DEEP SEA MINING
An untapped abundance of minerals lies at the bottom of the deep sea, which include metals that are crucial for the production of electric vehicles and other “green” technologies. However, the environmental impacts of mining these materials are largely unknown. Tensions around how to regulate this new form of mining came to the fore this year. In New Zealand, a select committee will consider the risks and benefits of seabed mining in local waters, while international authorities missed a key deadline to establish a deep-sea mining code for international waters.
More from the SMC: A looming deadline for deep-sea mining regulations – Expert Q&A; Seabed mining around Aotearoa – Expert Q&A; Deep sea mining test may have had lasting impacts – Expert Reaction; The murky legal waters of deep-sea mining – Expert Q&A,
Photo by kawamoto takuo from Wikimedia Commons
CONTROVERSIAL RELEASE OF FUKUSHIMA’S TREATED NUCLEAR WASTEWATER
More than 10 years after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami triggered a full meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan moved forward with releasing treated and diluted nuclear wastewater from the plant into the Pacific Ocean. The water has been used to cool the melted reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but after filling more than 1000 tanks, storage is expected to reach capacity early next year. Nuclear physicists told the SMC the treated wastewater was safe to be discharged into the ocean.
More from the SMC: The science of Fukushima’s treated nuclear wastewater – Expert Reaction; Treated Fukushima nuclear wastewater soon to be released in the Pacific – SMC Briefing; Treated Fukushima wastewater set to be released from Thursday – Expert Reaction
Photo by JJ Shev on Unsplash
SMOKEFREE LAWS TO BE STUBBED OUT
New Zealand’s new coalition Government ushered in a shocking reversal of the previous Government’s efforts to stop newer generations from ever picking up smoking in the first place. Public health experts in Aotearoa and abroad widely eviscerated the repeal, saying the move runs contrary to the evidence of what’s required to end the smoking epidemic. Before it was announced that smokefree laws would be repealed, the WHO said NZ’s tobacco control was nearly among the best in the world. Aotearoa had also ranked second in the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index survey of 90 countries, which rates countries on their response to tobacco industry interference.
Throughout the year there was debate about the role of vaping – while a useful tool for smokers to reduce or quit smoking, it also attracts a flow of young non-smokers and can be a gateway to smoking. In Aotearoa new rules were brought in which prevent new retailers from opening near schools and marae, ban disposable vapes, and restrict flavour names – while Australia banned non-prescription vaping altogether.
More from the SMC: WHO says NZ’s tobacco control nearly among the best in the world – Expert Reaction; New smokefree laws to be scrapped – In the News; Tobacco industry influence in Aotearoa – Expert Q&A; Youth vaping targeted by new rules – Expert Reaction; Australia bans non-prescription vaping – Expert Reaction
AI: FRIEND, FOE, OR JUST A BUNCH OF 1s AND 0s THAT NEEDS REGULATING
At the AI Safety Summit in the UK, 29 countries signed the “Bletchley Declaration” agreeing that artificial intelligence poses a potentially catastrophic risk to humanity. They say that while AI presents enormous global opportunities, it needs to be designed, developed and deployed in a way that is safe. They have particular concern about the risks in areas such as cybersecurity and biotechnology and the potential for AI systems to amplify risks such as disinformation, and say that since many of these risks are international in nature, they are best addressed through international cooperation. Earlier in the year, ChatGPT (almost) passed a US medical exam, but relentless updates to the software meant that by the time the research was published it was already somewhat out of date.
INVASIVE WEEDS AND PESTS THREATEN OUR BIODIVERSITY
The threat of invasive species was plainly laid out this year, with wilding pines posing a wildfire risk, the seaweed Caulerpa smothering the seafloor, and research showing sport hunting is not enough to prevent deer browsing on forest seedlings. It’s believed that biological invasions cost the world hundreds of billions of dollars each year. New Zealand’s National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity updated the rules on how we protect our native species – stating that indigenous species in Aotearoa must not drop below current levels, and habitats deemed significant must be protected. And a finely detailed interactive map will help landowners understand how they can restore biodiversity in their area.
More from the SMC: Measures to protect native biodiversity – Expert Reaction & SMC Briefing, An interactive map for nationwide biodiversity restoration – Expert Reaction, The state of our atmosphere and climate – Expert Reaction, Officials to trial removing invasive seaweed Caulerpa – Expert Reaction, Sport hunting deer doesn’t help restore forest regeneration – Expert Reaction, The compounding threat of invasive alien species – Expert Reaction, Is NZ’s conservation strategy unbalanced? – Expert Reaction
Image by Sangharsh Lohakare on Unsplash
DNA TESTING DELIVERS NEW FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION
Specialist health professionals called for more regulations to protect Kiwis from genetic discrimination by insurance companies. Life and health insurers in Aotearoa can legally use customers’ genetic test results to deny their applications or increase their premiums, which can deter New Zealanders from taking potentially life-saving genetic tests. Further concerns around genetic discrimination were raised when the New Zealand Police announced a trial of Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy to solve two high profile cold cases. The technique uses data from commercial genealogy testing companies to identify close relatives of potential suspects. But experts say that as the trials go ahead without recommended independent oversight, significant concerns around privacy, discrimination and tikanga remain.
WAR OF WORDS AT CLIMATE NEGOTIATIONS
There were low expectations heading into COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates. The President of the meeting was also an oil CEO, and invited fossil fuel industry players to the conference. However there was a lot at stake, with the meeting informed by the first report card on how the world was tracking with its Paris Agreement goals. At the end of the meeting, more than 200 countries agreed to begin reducing the global consumption of fossil fuels – the first time that countries have come to a consensus about the fossil fuel transition. The agreement was hailed as both groundbreaking and watered-down, including by NZ’s new Climate Minister. Pacific nations said the agreement had a “litany of loopholes” – with the fossil fuel transition only covering energy systems, not transport or plastics. What really matters now is what countries will do afterwards.
More from the SMC: The first report card on the Paris Agreement – Expert Reaction, All eyes on COP28 – Expert Reaction, Draft COP28 agreement text criticised for fossil fuel omission – Expert Reaction, Global climate agreement reached at COP28 – Expert Reaction