Our Changing World

Thursday 8 October 2015, with Alison Ballance & Veronika Meduna

On This Programme

Science of stony soils and water

By Alison Ballance

“We’ve an integrated research project using lysimeters to quantify how our management activities affect both the performance of crops and also how water and nutrients leach out the base.”
Sam Carrick, Soil Scientist, Landcare Research.

Different size lysimeters in the ground

The barrel lysimeters (left) are 50-cm across and filled with very stony soil. The very large lysimeters (right) are made from a 2-meter diameter sewer pipe (in the foreground) and a shipping container (in the background in front of Sam Carrick)

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

A cut-away of a lysimeter

A cut-away of a lysimeter showing how the barrel is dug into the soil, enclosing a core of soil, and water draining through can be measured at the bottom.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

What do a 50-cm diameter barrel, a 2-metre diameter sewer pipe and a shipping container have in common? They are all being used to study stony soils in Canterbury, to see how water and animal urine move through the soil, affect plant growth and contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide. They have been turned into lysimeters, which enclose an undisturbed plug of soil that can be fitted with scientific instruments so it can be studied in detail. The smaller lysimeters can even be dug up and moved to a new location, while keeping the soil structure intact.

Sam Carrick is a soil scientist from Landcare Research at Lincoln, and he is involved in a six-year research programme called ‘Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching’. The project, which is being run by a number of organisations at the Lincoln Hub, including  Lincoln University, Dairy NZ, and Plant and Food as well as Landcare Research, aims to ‘reduce nitrate leaching losses by 20 percent by delivering proven, adoptable and profitable pasture and forage crop options.’

A number of lysimeters have been installed on research farms around Lincoln. One contains 24 of the smaller lysimeters, and has a moveable greenhouse that can slide over the lysimeters to keep them dry during a rain storm. This is because irrigation rates are being studied in this experiment, and natural rain would upset the calculations. Different kinds of irrigators deliver water at different rates, and even a centre pivot irrigator delivers differing amounts of water at different points along the irrigator. Sam says it’s important to know the best flow rate and the optimum interval to irrigate at to ensure that the greatest amount fo water stays in the soil and doesn’t flush straight through.

In other experiments lysimeters are variously treated with a nutrient-rich amount of water that mimics a natural urine patch left by a cow.

These lysimeters (marked by circles of vigorous plant growth) are in situ in a paddock

These lysimeters (marked by circles of vigorous plant growth) are in situ in a paddock that is grazed by diary cows, and different kinds of forage are being grown in the lysimeters.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The 50-cm diameter barrels are the same size as an average urine patch, so some lysimeters can be treated while others are left as controls.

The exercise is being scaled up using the Christchurch rebuild-inspired lysimeters made from a piece of sewer pipe and the shipping container. These lysimeters are large enough to grow crops on, and a number of urine patches can be applied across the surface. Previous research has shown that in the course of a year about cows deposit urine on about half a paddock.

2015 is Year of Soils, and we have already featured stories about New Zealand's rich diversity of soils and Earthworms.

A lysimeter set-up with a travelling cover, and Sam Carrick with a complex computer control box with

The 24 lysimeters on either side of the trench can be covered by a travelling greenhouse to keep the rain off. Sam Carrick (right) is next to the computer controlling all the instrumentation monitoring the soil in the lysimeters.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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How best to invest in science

We should fund research.
But trying to choose the best
Doesn't work too well.

Haiku summary of a Motu research project evaluating the Marsden Fund

This week, the government released its science funding strategy, setting out a long-term vision for the science system and a guide for future investments.

The National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI) lays out several key goals:  to simplify contestable funding processes, to review the core funding for Crown Research Institutes, to “refresh” the Health Research Council and to introduce annual performance reports evaluating the science system.

At the NSSI launch, science minister Steven Joyce also stressed the government’s intention to increase public funding of science. “We have made a commitment to grow our investment in science further to 0.8 per cent of GDP and include more ideas-led discovery research, which is likely to generate substantial long-term benefits for New Zealand.”

Motu director Adam Jaffe

Motu director Adam Jaffe

Photo: Stephen A’Court

New Zealand spends less money on research, relative to its size, than many other countries in the OECD, and the government’s goal of expanding public funding of science would narrow this gap. But the intention comes with the caveat that it would require a balanced budget.

Adam Jaffe, the director of Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, says raising public investment from about 0.5 per cent of GDP currently to 0.8 per cent would be significant, but it should not hinge on favourable fiscal conditions.

That caveat means that we don’t quite know if or when it’s going to happen. The current government seems quite focused on balancing the budget so the money would have to come from somewhere else. What’s unfortunate about that is that the evidence both internationally and to some extend from New Zealand is that the return on an increased investment in science would be very beneficial for New Zealand.
Adam Jaffe, Motu

He says conditioning the goal on achieving a budget surplus doesn’t make sense from an economic perspective.“If the return is high you’d like to make that investment even if you have to borrow money to do it because the return is going to be there.”

Adam Jaffe says he is not advocating a crash programme because the science system could not support that, but he would like to see a commitment to a long-term gradual increase. “Something like 5 per cent over inflation per year for the next 10 years, that would be the kind of programme that would build the infrastructure and the science system that we need in New Zealand.”

Nicola Gaston, the president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and a principal investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, welcomes the NSSI as a great improvement on the draft document which was released a year ago.

“Some of the recommendations made by the NZ Association of Scientists (as well, no doubt, as by others) appear to have been taken seriously: this is reflected, for example, in the stated intent to increase levels of investigator-led funding both through the Marsden Fund and through MBIE mechanisms.”

But she says nothing has been done to address the severe shortage of postdoctoral fellowships in New Zealand.

Shaun Hendy, the director of Te Punaha Matatini, echoes the concerns.

“This government cut 90 post-doctoral fellowships in 2010 after officials made a simple mathematical error in a briefing document to the then minister, Wayne Mapp. The draft Statement mentioned post-doctoral fellowships 10 times, and sector submissions made more than 50 mentions of their concerns about a lack of funding for postdocs. Yet this final cut fails to mention postdoctoral fellows at all. This is really very disappointing.”

He says he’s found little new thinking or new policy in the NSSI document.

The priorities still seem to lie principally in seeing science as a route to economic growth, with the nods to health and environmental research focussing on how they too can help grow the economy.
Shaun Hendy, Te Punaha Matatini

Adam Jaffe welcomes the intention to improve evaluation and performance measurement in the science sector. Last week, Motu released a study that evaluated the efficacy of the Marsden Fund and found that grant recipients clearly benefit.

“We find that funding is associated with a significant increase in researchers’ scientific output and the apparent impact of their output as measured by subsequent citation.”

However, another result of the study shows that the selection process, in which expert panels rank the proposals, is not predictive of subsequent success, which implies that if the unfunded projects could have been funded, the benefit wold have been as great as for the projects that were actually funded.

“This means there is no reason to expect diminishing returns if Marsden funding were increased.”

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Why kakariki are losing their feathers

By Alison Ballance

“For the last few years we’ve seen quite a few rather bald and mangy looking kakariki, and we’ve discovered it’s a skin mite. The mite is microscopic, and it burrows around the feather follicle and pushes the feathers out.”
Emma Wells, bird keeper, Auckland Zoo

Kakariki having its photo taken. Photo Alison Ballance

Emma Wells photo Alison Ballance

Kakariki photo Alison Ballance

Bethany Jackson Nat Sullivan photo Alison Ballance

Bald kakariki photo Alison Ballance

Kakariki blood samples photo Alison Ballance

Nat Sullivan at mist net photo Alison Ballanc

Tiritiri Matangi lighthouse photo Alison Ballance

Studying kakariki on Tiritiri Matangi Island

“The reality is we seeing more and more disease in wildlife. Because of the pressures wildlife is under animals are increasingly stressed and they’re succumbing to things that historically they might have been able to fight off.”
Dr Bethany Jackson, wildlife vet, Murdoch University.

Kakariki with bald patch on the back of its head

A tiny skin mite causes mange and feather loss in more than half of the adult kakariki on Tiritiri Matangi Island.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Kakariki or red-crowned parakeets on Tiritiri Matangi Island, an open sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf, have a problem. Many of them are losing feathers, and in the worst cases birds are becoming quite bald.

The culprit was identified as a mange mite by Australian wildlife vet, Dr Bethany Jackson, from Murdoch University. A few years ago Bethany investigated the problem as part of the PhD research, and since then she has worked with Auckland Zoo in an ongoing disease screening programme on the island.

Every spring a team visits the island to catch kakariki in mist nets, and assess their health status. The birds are banded, measured and weighed, blood samples are collected for disease screening, and feather loss is estimated. Over the week the zoo staff and volunteers are on the island they usually manage to sample about 70 birds. This spring more than half of the birds studied had mange.

Auckland Zoo keepers Emma Wells and Nat Sullivan also carry out a nesting study, following breeding success in fifty kakariki nests.

“What we want to know is how the mange is related to weather patterns and to food availability,” says Emma. “We also want to know if it’s causing issues with breeding. Last year, for instance we had a really low chick survival, with no survivors.”

Emma says that it seemed this low chick survival was related to poor food availability, and that the mange is worse during a poor food year.

The team take photographs of each bird, and by comparing photos of birds that have been caught more than once, over several years, there is evidence that some birds can recover from a bad case of mange.

Bethany says that the mite affects adult birds, but not chicks.

“We also know that kakariki on Little Barrier Island carry the mites, too, although they were looking normal when we sampled them,” says Bethany. “So we suspect this mite could be quite widespread in parakeets in New Zealand.”

Bethany says that it’s important to establish baseline disease surveillance for animals to set a benchmark for what’s ‘normal’.

“While disease is something that has always been part of wildlife ecology, the rate of change in terms of habitat change, climate change means wildlife is under increasing pressure from all directions, including predators,” says Bethany. “And really disease is just another threat we want to be keeping tabs on, and seeing if there’s something new coming into the country. And the reality is we seeing more and more disease in wildlife.”

Tasmanian devil facial tumour, chytrid fungus in frogs and a new fungus infecting salamanders are example of recent disease outbreaks, and Bethany says the growing international trade in wildlife increases the chances of diseases spreading.

Last year Our Changing World joined Auckland Zoo as they released captive-bred wetapunga, or giant weta, on Tiritiri Matangi Island.

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Wellington joins 100 Resilient Cities

The way we define urban resilience is the ability of a city to not just survive but thrive in the face of shocks and stresses.
Nicola Thomson, 100 Resilient Cities

Wellington City Council urban ecology team leader Myfanwy Emeny at the Lyall Bay beach, where waves come right up to a car parking area.

Wellington City Council urban ecology team leader Myfanwy Emeny at the Lyall Bay beach, where waves come right up to a car parking area.

Photo: Veronika Meduna / RNZ

Wellington’s Lyall Bay is a favourite spot for surfers – and when the surf is up, the waves pound the beach with force.

At one end of the beach, there’s Surfers’ Corner, a small car parking area that was initially constructed to sit two metres above the beach. But within a short time, the wave action dumped so much sand against the car park's ocean-facing wall that it’s now only barely above the beach and the ocean regularly spills over and erodes the asphalted surface.

Myfanwy Emeny leads the urban ecology group at the Wellington City Council, and for her team, this is one of the challenges they face as they consider options for making the capital city’s coastline more resilient.

One of the decisions we have to make about this area is should we actually retreat from this car park and move it back closer to the road and replant the dunes in order to better protect the road and the infrastructure behind it.

Further along the beach dunes that have been planted with native sand-binding plants act as shock absorbers. They stand up to the impact and power of the waves and allow sand to be shifted around. “It’s a really effective mechanism to protect coastline.”

Along this part of Wellington’s coastline, the ocean already regularly spills over onto the road, taking logs and rocks with it. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid in the future by looking at some medium to long-term solutions for Lyall Bay and the rest of our coastline as well.”

Wellington’s mayor Celia Wade-Brown says urban resilience is a big issue for the capital, which faces natural hazards such as earthquakes as well as longer-term impacts from environmental, social and economic changes.

“Whether it’s more refugees or sea level rise, it doesn’t happen overnight but has an impact on planning. We need to bring that together so it’s not just a central and local government issue, but businesses, communities, families and individuals as well.”

Wellington recently joined a global initiative of 100 Resilient Cities, which was launched by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013. Last week, urban planners, hazards scientists and policy makers came together at a workshop to discuss a strategy to turn the capital into a more resilient city.

One of the speakers was Nicola Thomson, an associate director for 100 Resilient Cities. She says the programme was launched to help cities around the world to build natural, social and economic resilience in the face of challenges of the 21st century.

The way we define urban resilience is the ability of a city to not just survive but thrive in the face of shocks and stresses. Shocks are traditional disasters … a disease outbreak, an earthquake, a global financial crisis, but we also recognise that it’s equally important that a city builds resilience to stresses, which are things that are happening in a city constantly or on a cyclical basis that are actually weakening the fabric of the city.

This podcast highlights the issues for Wellington and features resilience planners from other cities that are already part of 100 Resilient Cities.

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Living in the age of resilience

There’s a consensus now that the cost of doing nothing would be huge. The cost of doing nothing is in fact the cost of accepting a more than two-degree warming for the end of the century and that is a zone of no control.
Pierre Ducret

As momentum builds towards a United Nations climate summit in Paris in December, French experts visited New Zealand recently to discuss our capacity to adapt and to address the challenge of climate change.

In an earlier interview, the United Nation’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, said that she expects that a global and legally binding agreement will emerge from the climate negotiations at COP21, but she conceded that the commitments countries have made so far fall short of keeping temperature rise below two degrees.

The Road to Paris - UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres ( 16 min 57 sec )

Pierre Ducret, an advisor for climate change at a major public investor for economic development, says a world that has warmed by more than two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures would be essentially uninsurable.

But he says the goal is still achievable. “It’s possible because we have all the technical solutions, it’s possible because it’s not such a heavy part of the global GDP to dedicate to the green investments and it’s also possible because the transition has already began all over the world.”

The challenge now, he says, is to seize the opportunity and to accelerate the transition towards low-carbon economies as outlined in the Better Growth Better Climate reports by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

Lucile Schmid, who works with several think tanks in France, says an awareness of the cost of inaction doesn’t necessarily mean that people know what to do and whether a transition is possible without losses in the standard of living. She says our idea of progress may have to be redefined. “When we talk about growth for example, having a discussion about the content of growth will be very important, as well as having a discussion about the value of nature.”

Pierre Ducret says economic signals, such as the removal of subsidies for fossil fuel industries, are essential, as is a prize on carbon. “We must put a price on carbon because it’s the best signal to accelerate investment towards green and to penalise brown investments, but we will have different prices all over the world and a kind of disorder about carbon pricing because it will depend on the capacity of the different economies. We also have to proof to developing countries that putting a price on carbon is profitable for their own transition.”

He says overall he is optimistic about the future, particularly as many people are changing the way the think about resources, towards shared use and away from ownership.

In Europe, when you see that the young generation is considering that to be an owner of a car is a stupid thing, we have reasons to be optimistic.

Both Pierre Ducret and Lucile Schmid visited New Zealand to take part in public panel discussions about the Age of Resilience, organised by the Royal Society of New Zealand and broadcast on Radio New Zealand. You can listen to the podcasts of all three events.

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Bird of the Year Competition 2015

Vote Albatross campaign poster for the Bird of the Year competition

Vote Albatross campaign poster for the Bird of the Year competition

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

'Vote Albatross' is the cry from Our Changing World producer Alison Ballance, who is campaign manager for Albatross in this year's Bird of the Year competition.

This is the 11th year of the competition, organised by Forest and Bird to highlight some of New Zealand's native birds. It was first won by tui, and since then it has been won by fantail, grey warbler, kakapo, kiwi, kakariki, pukeko, falcon and mohua. Last year the competition was for Seabird of the Year and it was won by a coastal species, the fairy tern.

Alison reckons that since New Zealand is albatross capital of the world, and since a true ocean-going seabird has never won, it's about time the magnificent albatross was a winner.

Voting is open until 5pm on Sunday 25 October, and a reminder that after you vote you need to click the confirmation email that is sent to you.

Vote Albatross has a website and a Facebook page, and you can also keep up with Alison and the campaign on Twitter.