Toward a green society Guest Work Apr 07

1 Comment

Maurice Judd is an environmental chemist teaching environmental science, sustainability and interdisciplinary studies at the tertiary level.  He comments on the recent Royal Society Report: Facing the future:  toward a green economy for New Zealand.

The recent expert Royal Society paper:  Facing the future: toward a green economy for New Zealand, is an excellent document and I encourage readers to download a copy and study it.  I  do; however, think a re-title is appropriate.  The report would be more usefully titled:  Facing the future: toward a green  society for New Zealand.

As you would expect the paper clearly identifies many opportunities for us.  In particular,  I agree that in the global context New Zealanders and humanity faces multiple challenges that are clearly opportunities.   New Zealand is in a strong position to accept these challenges and adapt successfully.  The authors list four “potentials” they view as setting is up for success:  We have existing strengths.  We have renewable energy systems in place and the basis of a low carbon technology and service based society.  A number of us are already taking the initiative.  And we are already innovating  in areas leading to “social inclusiveness” and “collaborative processes”.  The authors also state we have much to do; including:  building a clear vision of an inclusive and prosperous tomorrow.   Building the research capacity to support the vision.  Making long term investment in areas such as inclusive decision making processes and capacity in land use, energy, transport and housing.  And they say we need a “well informed and stable policy environment”.

All of this is true and I would add that there is a clear understanding among many citizens, and citizen and professional groups (like the Royal Society) that change is necessary.   There are plenty of reasons for optimism.

Following on from this introductory section as we would expect,  the authors concentrate on the easily seen opportunities;  however, there are important pieces glossed over or missed out.

The discussion on transport correctly identifies the vulnerability of our society to access and cost for fuels but the analysis of solutions fails to introduce the necessity of effective public transport and rail networks running on renewable fuels.  In my view, this is an important oversight.

The authors  also identify innovative approaches to participatory decision making, such as the Land and Water Accord but fail to mention the risk that groups such as this can be captured by well resourced special interest groups.   Inclusive approaches that will yield truly sustainable solutions will require the input from all stakeholders not just those that have historic economic and political power.  Once again my view is that this omission is important.

This leads to the, in my mind, most serious flaw with the report.  The authors do state that New Zealand must become more socially inclusive but do not follow that thought with a description of just how radical an institutional change this is.  Institutions that are inclusive and participatory will be totally different from the competitive market lead ones we have today.  The authors state that New Zealand will require “strong leadership.”  I disagree, we will require “effective leadership”  maybe even “servant leadership”  or an innovative approach.   Strong leadership is an anathema to the inclusive cooperative style the authors suggest we need.  Institutional business-as-usual will not provide the necessary structures and marked change is required.

Having said this, the authors have put a vision in front to us, as a dream of what may be.  That is the  import point:  What is our vision for the future?  Is the vision an inclusive green one or is it something much darker.  The choice is ours!

In short; the report, as the Royal Society hoped, is a start for a wide ranging conversation and I hope change.  I encourage readers to download the report and discuss it widely.  Bring it to the attention of your: fellow citizens, Members of Parliament, your Mayors and Councillors, your bankers; anyone who will listen.  The authors see this as a huge opportunity for New Zealand.  I agree.  As quickly as we can we need to make the vision of an inclusive green sustainable New Zealand a reality.

Thank you.

The future of sex? Guest Work Mar 05

1 Comment

Once derided as being like a plastic bag with the erotic appeal of a jellyfish, the female condom is being reinvented as the next big thing in safe sex. Emily Anthes from Mosaic investigates.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.40.22 AM

1. Excitement

In 1987, an American pharmaceutical executive called Mary Ann Leeper flew to Copenhagen to get a firsthand look at what she thought might be the world’s next great health innovation. She didn’t expect to find it tucked away inside an old cigar box.

When she arrived at the old farmhouse owned by Danish doctor and inventor Lasse Hessel, he opened the door with a cigar in his mouth. Then he fetched the box. “Inside were all these bits and pieces – metal, plastic, all different kinds of stuff,” Leeper recalls. “I took a deep breath and thought, ‘Holy mother – what have I gotten myself into?’” Somehow, these bits and pieces fit together to form a contraption that women could wear during sex to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections – the world’s first female condom.

The presentation may have been unconventional, but Leeper and her colleagues at Wisconsin Pharmacal had high hopes for Hesse’s invention. “The AIDS crisis in the United States was just fully being recognised, and it was clear to us that for women to have a product that they could use to help protect themselves would be a good thing,” Leeper says.

Indeed, when Wisconsin Pharmacal finally introduced the female condom to the USA in 1993, public health experts hailed it as a game-changer. The condom, a polyurethane pouch inserted into the vagina before sex, would protect women from sexually transmitted infections even if their male partners refused to wear condoms.

Technically, the female condom works. When used correctly, it reduces a woman’s risk of contracting HIV by around 94–97 per cent each time she had sex, according to estimates. Studies show that making female condoms available alongside the male version increases the percentage of sexual acts that are protected, and decreases the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections.

Yet, two decades after its much-celebrated introduction, the female condom still isn’t living up to its potential. Less intuitive and familiar than the male condom, the device simply never caught on. Journalists mocked it, clinicians ignored it, and women shunned it, claiming that the condom was aesthetically unappealing and technically difficult to master. Today, only 1.6 per cent of all condoms distributed worldwide are female condoms.

There may finally be an opening to change the female condom’s fate. For years, a handful of researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs have been quietly tinkering with the device. Their efforts are now maturing and an assortment of redesigned and reinvented female condoms are beginning to make their way onto the market. The introduction of new, more user-friendly products – coupled with renewed efforts to promote the technology around the globe – may finally be positioning the female condom for a breakthrough.

2. Plateau

From the start, the female condom was a difficult project – far more difficult than Leeper had bargained for. After buying the rights to the technology, Leeper and her colleagues at Wisconsin Pharmacal needed to turn Hessel’s prototype into a marketable product. After some tweaking, they ended up with a thin polyurethane pouch with a flexible ring at each end. A woman would insert the device by squeezing the ring that sits in the closed end of the pouch and pushing it into her vagina. Once expanded inside the vagina, this inner ring would keep the condom in place. The larger ring at the open end of the pouch would sit outside the vagina, covering the external genitalia. When a man ejaculated, the internal condom pouch would trap his semen, preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

But before Wisconsin Pharmacal could put the condom on the market, they needed approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Because the female condom was an utterly new kind of product, the FDA decided to regulate it as a class III medical device, a category that is generally reserved for “high-risk” medical equipment – such as pacemakers and certain lasers – and that requires the highest level of regulatory scrutiny. (The FDA classifies male condoms as class II medical devices, so they are subject to fewer controls and do not require pre-market approval.)

It took six years for the female condom to wind its way through the regulatory system, and when the government finally approved it, in 1993, Leeper breathed a sigh of relief. “I thought that the hardest part was going to be getting it through FDA because it was really difficult and they kept changing the specifications, the requirements, the clinical studies,” she says. But she was wrong. The hard part was just beginning.

As Wisconsin Pharmacal prepared to launch the Reality female condom in the USA (it would go by other brand names in other countries), they made all the standard arrangements, hiring sales reps to visit medical practices and commissioning a big advertising firm to market the product directly to consumers. “We did all the checklist things that you’re supposed to do,” Leeper says. “And we fell flat on our face.”

The challenge, in part, was the era, and the public’s squeamishness about a sex-related product. “In those days, you couldn’t talk ‘condom’ out loud,” Leeper recalls. “Male condoms were referred to as ‘rubbers’. You said them in a whisper and they were held behind the counter by the pharmacist.” And although the AIDS crisis was raging, for many American women, the risk of contracting HIV was abstract, something that happened to other people and not to them. While women in focus groups had said they liked the idea of the condom, according to Leeper, “when push came to shove, when they were in that bedroom, the female condom was out on the dining-room table”.

There were other barriers, too. The condoms cost as much as $5 a piece, compared to male condoms, which can typically be had for $1 or less. Krissy Ferris recalls hearing about female condoms when she was a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, but the price was a deterrent. “I didn’t actually try one until I got free samples,” recalls Ferris, who now works at a medical practice in Cleveland, Ohio. “Am I going to buy $6 worth of condoms to try this out a couple times? It seems like maybe not. You’re getting male condoms for free everywhere when you’re in your 20s.”

What’s more, the female condom was, frankly, strange. Unlike the male condom, which is sold rolled up and compressed, the female condom came fully open. Women and men alike were turned off by the unfamiliar, big, plastic-bag-like device they found when they undid the packet. Though some women did eventually come to like the condoms, there was a definite learning curve and as many as one-third to one-half of women had difficulty inserting them. Once in place, the condom had a tendency to squeak or rustle during sex.

The media pounced on these complaints, and utterly skewered the female condom. They ridiculed its aesthetics with seemingly limitless creativity. As sociologist Amy Kaler recounts in her 2004 paper on the condom’s introduction, journalists compared the product to: “a jellyfish, a windsock, a fire hose, a colostomy bag, a Baggie, gumboots, a concertina, a plastic freezer bag, something to line Boston’s Inner Harbor with, a cross between a test tube and a rubber glove, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, something designed for a female elephant, something out of the science-fiction cartoon The Jetsons, a raincoat for a Slinky toy, or a ‘contraption used to punish fallen virgins in the Dark Ages.’”

Though the media treatment was especially harsh, journalists “were picking up on what were genuine design issues of the first generation of the female condom,” says Kaler, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. “It wasn’t the most beautiful thing in the world. It was easy to make fun of. It was kind of laughed out of existence before it really got a chance to take off.”

Still, there were signs that Wisconsin Pharmacal was onto something. In 1995, two years after bringing the condom to market, Leeper got a call from an official at Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Welfare. The health worker had received a petition demanding that the government of Zimbabwe bring the female condom into the country. It had been signed by 30,000 women.

Though Leeper had initially envisioned selling the female condom in America’s private sector, the call from Zimbabwe, coupled with the condom’s poor reception in the USA, prompted the company to shift course.

International nonprofit groups and aid organisations have long been big buyers of male condoms. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the US Agency for International Development, Population Service International and others regularly purchase male condoms in bulk and then donate them – or sell them at a deeply subsidised price – to clinics and programmes that serve particularly high-risk populations.

In 1996, Wisconsin Pharmacal changed its name to the Female Health Company and began to focus on this global public sector, working with governments, global health organisations and aid agencies to get the condoms into the hands of at-risk women in low-income countries. The female condom became a particularly important tool in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where, in the early 2000s, 60 per cent of new HIV diagnoses were made in women, who often contracted the virus through their long-term partners.

Patience Kunaka, who was teaching nursing and midwifery students in Zimbabwe when she first heard about female condoms, knew these risks all too well. Two of her cousins had died of AIDS-related causes, and three additional family members were infected with HIV. Like many other women, she was not initially impressed by the female condom. “When I first saw one my immediate reaction was, ‘Wow! How does it remain inside with penile movement?’” she recalls. “I thought it would be sliding in and out and what a messy act! I also thought the plastic would crumble inside me causing discomfort.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.35.00 AM

But Kunaka suspected her partner at the time of being unfaithful and was – in her own words – “obsessed about sexual hygiene”, so she decided to give the female condom a shot. It didn’t go well at first. “I had problems inserting it and felt discomfort from the inner ring,” she says. Slowly, after some practice, she got the hang of it. Kunaka even came to like the device, especially “the fact that I don’t have to beg my partner to use a condom”.

She became a female-condom convert. “In my African context, where men are at liberty to have as many partners as they can have, they give me power to negotiate for safer sex,” she says. She even went on to get a job as the condoms and training manager for Population Service International Zimbabwe, and now spends her days spreading the word about female condoms to men and women throughout the country.

The female condom received a better reception in Africa than it had in the USA, and as the Female Health Company sought to expand its global reach, it tweaked its original product, switching from a polyurethane condom to one made of nitrile, the same material used in many medical gloves. The nitrile condom, called the FC2, is significantly cheaper than its polyurethane predecessor, now commonly referred to as the FC1, and also less noisy during sex. In 2007, the UNFPA ‘pre-qualified’ the FC2, making it eligible for bulk purchasing by public-sector agencies, and between 2007 and 2010, the number of female condoms distributed globally doubled from 25 million to 50 million.

Not bad for a contraceptive device that’s been likened to The Scream, but it’s still a drop in the ocean compared to male condoms. For every female condom that the major donor organisations purchase, they buy 71 male condoms. And although female condoms have got cheaper, price remains a limiting factor. An aid agency purchasing the FC2 in bulk will pay anywhere from $0.55 to $0.88 per condom but can get male condoms for as little as $0.02 a piece.

In many clinics in low-income countries, the supply of female condoms can be inconsistent, and the situation’s not much better in the private sector. While pharmacy shelves overflow with male condoms of every imaginable kind – ribbed, studded, ultrathin, warming, aloe-enriched, neon pink, glow-in-the-dark, bubblegum-flavoured – it can be difficult to find female condoms for sale at all.

In some places, the condoms are stigmatised, thanks to clinical trials and distribution programmes that initially focused on sex workers. Elsewhere, the devices are still saddled with the baggage of the product’s first, failed introduction. In March 2013, for instance, a writer for Jezebel, a popular feminist blog and news site, published a post titled ‘Stop Trying to Make Female Condoms Happen’. She expressed scepticism that “women will change their minds about wanting to line their vaginas like a waste paper basket”, and concluded by noting that “female condoms are just ew”.

More than two decades after the first female condom hit the shelves, this is not exactly the revolution that public health experts had in mind.

3. Orgasm

For nearly 40 years, PATH, a global health nonprofit based in Seattle, Washington, has been radically reinventing basic medical technologies. The group’s designers and engineers, for instance, created the Uniject: a disposable syringe pre-loaded with a single dose of vaccine. They built a one-size-fits-all diaphragm, removing the need for women to visit a doctor to have one specially fitted. And they invented a portable, handheld scale that health workers can bring to home deliveries. The scale requires no electricity, can be read in the dark, and is decipherable even to birth attendants with low literacy, making it easy to identify underweight infants.

In the late 1990s, PATH turned its attention to the female condom. “The Female Health Company did an incredible thing,” says Maggie Kilbourne-Brook, a programme officer at PATH. “They created a product that had never existed, and they got it approved, and they got it registered and marketed in more than 100 countries. They actually changed people’s perceptions of what barrier protection could be.” But as it became apparent that the condoms weren’t quite living up to their potential, some experts began to think that perhaps a radical makeover was in order. “In product development,” says Kilbourne-Brook, “We always expect first-generation devices will need to be improved.”

PATH prides itself on its user-centred design process, and so, in an effort to create a female condom that women would want to use, those at PATH decided to do something both radical and obvious: consult actual women. In 1998, PATH began convening focus groups in four countries – South Africa, Thailand, Mexico and the USA – asking women and men what they thought about female condoms and what they wanted from them.

From Durban to Seattle, it turns out that users’ desires were pretty basic: “a product that was going to be easy to use, easy to insert, stable during use,” says Kilbourne-Brook. Plus, “if it was possible, they wanted something that was more aesthetically pleasing”.

These requests became the guiding principles for the designers and engineers working at PATH’s product development laboratory in Seattle. The team ran an iterative, multi-step design process, building prototypes of potential new condoms in the lab and then sending them out to heterosexual volunteers in each of the four countries. These women and men handled and examined each model, sharing their impressions with researchers, and couples received samples of some of the more advanced prototypes to try out in their bedrooms. The product designers used the feedback to refine – and sometimes utterly rethink – their designs and then sent new, tweaked models back for further testing.

Early generations of female condoms had relied on a ring-based design. One of PATH’s first prototypes was similar, with a polyurethane pouch anchored between two fixed rings. But some women reported that it was difficult to push the inner ring into the vagina – the same complaint often made about the FC1 and FC2 – and that it was painful once inside. “Device is stable but uncomfortable,” one Mexican tester reported. So PATH decided to scrap the rings entirely. They briefly tested a prototype that could be inserted using a tampon tube applicator, but the condom didn’t deploy reliably.

They spent a lot of time talking about how to improve insertion. “We know from a user perspective, if you have a difficult time the very first time you try to use a device, a woman may never come back,” says Kilbourne-Brook. “We wanted this to be not only easy to use, but it needed to be easy to use for someone who’s never used it before.”

According to Kilbourne-Brook, the ultimate breakthrough was inspired by feedback from testers and researchers in Thailand, who said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had some kind of insertion device that helped you insert it and then it got out of the way?”

By 2003, they had hit on the solution: a dissolving applicator. The engineers created a condom that looked like a funnel, with a thin sheet of polyurethane that narrowed into a rounded tip. This tip contained the main pouch of the condom, collapsed inside a dissolving capsule. To insert the condom, women would simply push the capsule inside, much the same way they’d insert a tampon. Once it came into contact with the moisture of the vagina, the capsule would melt away – often within 30 to 60 seconds – releasing the full condom pouch.

The product designers gave the condom stability by attaching four small, thin pieces of polyurethane foam to the outside of the condom. Once the pouch expanded, these foam pieces nestled up against the vaginal wall, keeping the condom in place. Like other female condoms, the model also featured a flexible outer ring to cover the external genitalia.

Between November 2003 and January 2004, 60 couples received samples of this prototype to try at home. They were impressed. Eighty-eight per cent of the women said it was easy to insert and 97 per cent said the pouch was stable during sex. The vast majority of men and women asked said the condom was comfortable, and 98 per cent of women and 100 per cent of men said it allowed for satisfactory sensation during sex.

It had taken six years and more than 300 unique prototypes, but by early 2004, PATH had found its female condom.

The final product, which PATH named the Woman’s Condom, is “just a brilliant design,” says Kaler, who was not involved in its creation. “When you look at it visually, it isn’t huge. It’s clear what you do with it. And the way that it’s been designed with these foam pads means that it doesn’t move around.”

A series of larger clinical trials – conducted in Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, China and the USA – has reinforced what PATH found in its initial testing, with users reporting that the Woman’s Condom is comfortable, stable and easy to insert. Several studies have found that both men and women tend to like the Woman’s Condom better than the FC1 and FC2. Users’ main complaint was that it does not come pre-lubricated, as the FC2 does. Instead, each condom comes with a packet of lubricant that users can apply themselves.

In 2011, the Woman’s Condom received the stamp of approval from the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration and is currently under review by the UNFPA; approval is expected in 2014. In the meantime, limited quantities are already being sold in China and South Africa.

The Woman’s Condom isn’t the only new female condom on the scene. In 2012, the UNFPA pre-qualified the Cupid, which is manufactured by an Indian condom company. The Cupid relies on a ring-shaped foam sponge tucked into the closed end of the condom pouch for internal stability. Made of natural latex, the Cupid may be the cheapest female condom yet, and is now available for purchase in both the public and private sectors.

Several other condoms, each slightly different in design, are currently under UNFPA review. For instance, the Phoenurse, which is currently sold in China, comes with an optional insertion stick. Then there’s the panty condom, in which a condom pouch is affixed to a pair of reusable panties with an opening over the vagina. Before sex, a woman can push the condom inside with her finger – or a man can with his penis – without her having to take off the undergarment.

And there are still more designs in the early stages of development. Origami Condoms, based in Los Angeles, California, has developed a silicone female condom that unfolds like an accordion as it’s pushed into the vagina. The company just completed a small phase I acceptability study – overall, participants preferred the Origami condom to the FC2, though they said the FC2 felt more stable during sex. The company plans to conduct a larger clinical trial this year.

Not every product will be right for every woman or couple, but that’s precisely the point. “In the studies we’ve done, we’ve found that some women will say, ‘I really love this one and I don’t like this one at all’,” says Mags Beksinska, research director at the division of maternal, adolescent and child health at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. “There are different aspects that appeal to different women in the different designs. So it would be good if there was a wider choice.”

Krissy Ferris, the woman who was initially turned off by the cost of female condoms, came to see their advantages while dating a man who had trouble maintaining an erection with a male condom. “It was definitely a barrier to male condom use, and I was not ready to compromise on using a barrier method,” she says. The female condom was a “low-stress” solution.

Over the years, Ferris has tried several different products, including the FC1, the FC2 and the VA w.o.w., which, like the Cupid, uses an internal sponge to hold the condom pouch in place. Ferris found that she preferred the VA w.o.w. because the sponge made it feel more secure during sex. “If you’re using something with this desire for safety, having this extra measure of security was definitely a positive for me,” she says. But the FC1 and FC2 felt more natural, she acknowledged, and for some women, that may be more important.

There is some evidence to suggest that women are more likely to have safe sex – and less likely to become pregnant or contract sexually transmitted infections – when a larger selection of contraceptive and barrier products is available. Giving women a greater choice in female condoms may increase the odds that they choose any female condom at all.

Meanwhile, male condoms are also getting a redesign. In November 2013, the Gates Foundation awarded 11 grants of $100,000 to designers, engineers and scientists with ideas for a ‘next-generation condom’ – male or female – that would be easier and more pleasurable to use. The winning proposals include a male condom that is packaged with a built-in applicator, allowing the condom to be removed from its foil wrapper and donned in a single smooth motion, and a one-size-fits-all male condom designed to tighten during sex.

4. Resolution

Of course, upgrading a product is merely a first step. While the FC1 certainly had its flaws, they weren’t the only reason that female condoms didn’t take off. “Some technologies are harder than others,” says Laura Frost, a partner at Global Health Insights, a research and consulting firm. “Compared to other products where there’s one huge issue, like affordability or awareness, this one had those barriers at every stage.”

That’s why, for the female condom to truly break through, advocates will need to invest in comprehensive marketing and education campaigns at the local, national and global levels. “It takes more than just putting it on the shelf,” says Susie Hoffman, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University in New York.

Female condoms remain less straightforward than male condoms, and one of the major lessons of the last two decades is that women often need a little bit of training to use them correctly. That means that clinicians and counsellors may have to do more than simply tell women that female condoms exist – they’ll need to give them the opportunity to practise inserting one, either on a pelvic model or on themselves.

In addition, women may need help figuring out how to broach the subject with their male partners. Though the condoms have won praise for being female-initiated, they’re not entirely invisible, and most men will notice if their partners are wearing them. “In many cases, she’s probably going to want to mention to her partner before having sex that this is a new product that she’s going to try,” Hoffman says. “Ideally there’s going to be some kind of a conversation about it, and women need help in figuring out how to do that.”

Male partners are also a potential market. “Men probably feel, when it’s called the ‘female condom’, that it’s not something that’s for them,” Mags Beksinska says. But “there’s no reason that a man shouldn’t take one and bring it home and introduce it to his partner”. In fact, she adds, once men get used to the female condom, they often prefer it to the more constricting male version. Female condoms even enhance sex for some people: the outer ring can be used to stimulate the clitoris, while the inner ring of some designs can bump up pleasurably against the tip of the penis.

The female condom may remain a tough sell, but the good news, experts say, is that there are now more organisations trying to make the pitch. “Now we’re seeing a much bigger coalition of advocates, which is what we need,” Frost says. Some existing agencies, most notably the UNFPA, have stepped up their support, while champions have created a variety of new advocacy and awareness groups, including the National Female Condom Coalition in the USA, and the Universal Access to Female Condoms Joint Programme, based in the Netherlands.

Alongside this, the condom’s supporters are getting more creative in their promotion efforts, establishing Global Female Condom Day;– the first one was held on 12 September 2012 – and holding female-condom-themed fashion shows and film festivals. Several organisations have turned salons and barbershops in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Cameroon and elsewhere into female condom distribution centres, training hairdressers to promote and sell the product to both male and female clients. And all-out media blitzes in Africa – in which the condoms are promoted on billboards, television and the radio – have fed a sharp increase in demand.

“I think people had kind of written off the female condom,” says Beth Skorochod, a senior technical adviser at Population Service International. “But now people are beginning to say, ‘OK, with more competition and more interest, maybe this deserves another look’.”

There may even be hope for the hard-to-crack private sector in higher-income countries. After winning FDA approval for the FC2 in 2009, the Female Health Company relaunched the female condom in the USA, creating female condom campaigns and programmes in a handful of major American cities, including New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Some local US groups are also beginning to lay the groundwork for the future. Staff members at the Chicago Female Condom Campaign now show off samples of some of the newest products – including the Cupid and the Woman’s Condom – in their training and education sessions. The goal is to make sure that healthcare providers and consumers will be familiar with the products if and when they appear in the USA. But there’s an added benefit. “Frankly what this also does is it helps to cultivate new female condom advocates,” says Jessica Terlikowski, who coordinates the Chicago Female Condom Campaign and the National Female Condom Coalition. Seeing other products, she says, can prompt women to ask, “‘How can I get that?’ ‘Why don’t we have that here?’ People can’t ask for or demand what they don’t know about.”

Women may soon have choices beyond the conventional condom. Scientists have been developing interventions that would be truly invisible to women’s partners: oral antiretroviral pills and vaginal gels that prevent HIV. Despite the enormous excitement surrounding these drugs, they won’t be magic bullets either, and the public health community will still have to grapple with the thorny issues of education, access and adherence. In 2013, for instance, researchers announced that a clinical trial of two different HIV prevention pills and one vaginal gel, conducted among women in three African nations, failed because women weren’t using the medications regularly.

Such outcomes are making it increasingly obvious that the global fight against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is unlikely to be won with any one technology, no matter how elegantly designed. Instead, it will require an arsenal of weapons, a diverse array of tools that allow women and men to protect themselves. The female condom may never be as cheap or as popular as the male condom, but that doesn’t mean it has no role to play.

Among those optimistic about the female condom’s future is Lasse Hessel, the Danish doctor who started it all. The condom’s champions made some mistakes in the early years, Hessel says, but he’s encouraged by the recent resurgence of interest and the new products that are hitting the shelves. In fact, he wishes other inventors had redesigned his condom sooner, especially because there was so much room for improvement: “How can my ugly, clumsy female condom get any worse?” Hessel says. “It can only get much better.”

Read the Full article

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.41.02 AM

Marine Bacteria – do you know you’re soaking in them? Peter Griffin Jan 27

No Comments

The fifth in a summer series created by NIWA

Next time you head down to the beach for a swim scientist Els Maas would be delighted if you spare a thought for the invisible workhorses of the ocean.

The NIWA microbiologist is the only person in New Zealand studying the processes of billions and billions of tiny invisible bacteria in the oceans that play a crucial role in how the planet works.

“Bacteria are major players in the ocean but when we think about what’s important in the sea, we tend to think of something like fish or whales. While they are important, it’s really the bacteria that keep everything going.

“They’re just there all the time, breaking down anything that’s already dead and recycling the nutrients for all the other organisms to use again.”

Dr. Els Maas  credit: Dave Allen, NIWA

Dr. Els Maas credit: Dave Allen, NIWA

To get an idea of the sheer volume of marine bacteria, imagine a single drop of sea water. It contains about one million bacteria, each no more than one millionth of a metre long. And a litre can contain more than 20,000 different types of bacteria.

Dr Maas is particularly interested in the processes bacteria use to do their job and what controls these processes.

Take iron, for instance. For humans consuming the right amount of iron is important for good health. It’s the same for bacteria but there is a limited amount of iron in the ocean and bacteria have to compete with other organisms to get enough.

“Luckily they’re very adaptable.”

Different bacteria do different things but the same bacteria can also behave differently in different environments.

For instance, in the upper ocean bacteria exist that can use light and in polar regions they must be able to withstand the cold. In hydrothermal vents – where they provide all the energy for big organisms – they need to stay alive at 350°C.

Studies have found that following the oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, bacteria on the gulf beaches were able to feed – and thrive – on a diet of oil. The oil, although low in the nitrogen bacteria need to function, did provide them with a rich food source resulting in a population explosion.

One scientist commented that it was surprising how fast they consumed the oil. “In some locations it took only one day for them to reduce a gallon of oil to a half gallon.”

The bacteria compensated for the lack of nitrogen by getting it from the air – and the enthusiasm with which they took to consuming the oil is likely to provide valuable insight into future oil spill clean-up techniques.

As Dr Maas says: “These guys can exist in small numbers but when the conditions are right, or they change by getting new genes, they just go for it.

She is also studying how climate change affects bacterial processes and what any change to the acidity and temperature of the ocean might mean in the future.

“We are predicting that less carbon from the upper ocean will get into the deep ocean. More and more is being recycled in the upper ocean and at the same time producing more carbon dioxide.

When there is less carbon in the deep ocean it affects the organisms in the deep that rely on the carbon as a food source.

“And with more carbon dioxide in the upper ocean, it adds to the CO2 already absorbed by the ocean and leads to an increase in ocean acidification. Until we make sure the microbial processes are okay, there will be consequences further up the food chain.”

So while you’re swimming, surfing or boogie boarding this summer remember that all around you nature’s recycling bin is busy taking in waste products and dead plant and algae material before returning useful nutrients to the environment.

“The bacteria are very important and we don’t think enough about them,” says Dr Maas. “They really are dealing with everything no one else wants.”

Marine bacteria  Credit: Alan  Blacklock, NIWA

Marine bacteria Credit: Alan Blacklock, NIWA

Bacteria breakdown

Bacteria are the oldest living organism on earth with evidence going back at least 3.5 billion years.

The largest known species of bacteria was found in 1999 in the ocean sediments of Namibia where cells were as large as 0.75mm.

There are more bacteria in six litres of seawater than people on earth.

Bacteria decompose dead things as big as whales and as small as other microbes.

Bacteria can communicate with each other and coordinate their actions.

Bioluminescent bacteria produce light and can be found in some fish.

Some bacteria can reach puberty about 10 minutes after birth. That makes them theoretically able to produce one billion offspring in an afternoon.

Because they are constantly evolving, the majority of bacterial species remain undiscovered.

Without marine bacteria, life as we know it would cease to exist.

An insider’s story of the global attack on climate science Guest Work Jan 23

No Comments

By Jim Salinger, University of Auckland

A recent headline – Failed doubters trust leaves taxpayers six-figure loss – marked the end of a four-year epic saga of secretly-funded climate denial, harassment of scientists and tying-up of valuable government resources in New Zealand.

It’s likely to be a familiar story to my scientist colleagues in Australia, the UK, USA and elsewhere around the world.

But if you’re not a scientist, and are genuinely trying to work out who to believe when it comes to climate change, then it’s a story you need to hear too. Because while the New Zealand fight over climate data appears finally to be over, it’s part of a much larger, ongoing war against evidence-based science.

From number crunching to controversy

In 1981 as part of my PhD work, I produced a seven-station New Zealand temperature series, known as 7SS, to monitor historic temperature trends and variations from Auckland to as far south as Dunedin in southern New Zealand.

A decade later, in 1991-92 while at the NZ Meteorological Service, I revised the 7SS using a new homogenisation approach to make New Zealand’s temperature records more accurate, such as adjusting for when temperature gauges were moved to new sites.

The Kelburn Cable Car trundles up into the hills of Wellington. Shutterstock/

For example, in 1928 Wellington’s temperature gauge was relocated from an inner suburb near sea level up into the hills at Kelburn, where – due to its higher, cooler location – it recorded much cooler temperatures for the city than before.

With statistical analysis, we could work out how much Wellington’s temperature has really gone up or down since the city’s temperature records began back in 1862, and how much of that change was simply due to the gauge being moved uphill. (You can read more about re-examining NZ temperatures here.)

So far, so uncontroversial.

But then in 2008, while working for a NZ government-owned research organisation, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), we updated the 7SS. And we found that at those seven stations across the country, from Auckland down to Dunedin, between 1909 and 2008 there was a warming trend of 0.91°C.

Soon after that, things started to get heated.

The New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, linked to a global climate change denial group, the International Climate Science Coalition, began to question the adjustments I had made to the 7SS.

And rather than ever contacting me to ask for an explanation of the science, as I’ve tried to briefly cover above, the Coalition appeared determined to find a conspiracy.

“Shonky” claims

The attack on the science was led by then MP for the free market ACT New Zealand party, Rodney Hide, who claimed in the NZ Parliament in February 2010 that:

NIWA’s raw data for their official temperature graph shows no warming. But NIWA shifted the bulk of the temperature record pre-1950 downwards and the bulk of the data post-1950 upwards to produce a sharply rising trend… NIWA’s entire argument for warming was a result of adjustments to data which can’t be justified or checked. It’s shonky.

Mr Hide’s attack continued for 18 months, with more than 80 parliamentary questions being put to NIWA between February 2010 and July 2011, all of which required NIWA input for the answers.

The science minister asked NIWA to re-examine the temperature records, which required several months of science time. In December 2010, the results were in. After the methodology was reviewed and endorsed by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, it was found that at the seven stations from Auckland to Dunedin, between 1909 and 2008 there was a warming trend of 0.91°C.

That is, the same result as before.

But in the meantime, before NIWA even had had time to produce that report, a new line of attack had been launched.

Off to court

In July 2010, a statement of claim against NIWA was filed in the High Court of New Zealand, under the guise of a new charitable trust: the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust (NZCSET). Its trustees were all members of the NZ Climate Science Coalition.

The NZCSET challenged the decision of NIWA to publish the adjusted 7SS, claiming that the “unscientific” methods used created an unrealistic indication of climate warming.

The Trust ignored the evidence in the Meteorological Service report I first authored, which stated a particular adjustment methodology had been used. The Trust incorrectly claimed this methodology should have been used but wasn’t.

In July 2011 the Trust produced a document that attempted to reproduce the Meteorological Service adjustments, but failed to, instead making lots of errors.

On September 7 2012, High Court Justice Geoffrey Venning delivered a 49-page ruling, finding that the NZCSET had not succeeded in any of its challenges against NIWA.

The NZ weather wars in the news. The New Zealand Herald

The judge was particularly critical about retired journalist and NZCSET Trustee Terry Dunleavy’s lack of scientific expertise.

Justice Venning described some of the Trust’s evidence as tediously lengthy and said “it is particularly unsuited to a satisfactory resolution of a difference of opinion on scientific matters”.

Taxpayers left to foot the bill

After an appeal that was withdrawn at the last minute, late last year the NZCSET was ordered to pay NIWA NZ$89,000 in costs from the original case, plus further costs from the appeal.

But just this month, we have learned that the people behind the NZCSET have sent it into liquidation as they cannot afford the fees, leaving the New Zealand taxpayer at a substantial, six-figure loss.

Commenting on the lost time and money involved with the case, NIWA’s chief executive John Morgan has said that:

On the surface it looks like the trust was purely for the purpose of taking action, which is not what one would consider the normal use of a charitable trust.

This has been an insidious saga. The Trust aggressively attacked the scientists, instead of engaging with them to understand the technical issues; they ignored evidence that didn’t suit their case; and they regularly misrepresented NIWA statements by taking them out of context.

Yet their attack has now been repeatedly rejected in Parliament, by scientists, and by the courts.

The end result of the antics by a few individuals and this Trust is probably going to be a six-figure bill for New Zealanders to pay.

My former colleagues have had valuable weeks tied up with wasted time in defending these manufactured allegations. That’s time that could have profitably been used investigating further what is happening with our climate.

But there is a bigger picture here too.

Merchants of doubt

Doubt-mongering is an old strategy. It is a strategy that has been pursued before to combat the ideas that cigarette smoking is harmful to your health, and it has been assiduously followed by climate deniers for the past 20 years.

One of the best known international proponents of such strategies is US think tank, the Heartland Institute.

The first in a planned series of anti-global warming billboards in the US, comparing “climate alarmists” with terrorists and mass murderers. The campaign was canned after a backlash. The Heartland Institute

Just to be clear: there is no evidence that the Heartland Institute helped fund the NZ court challenge. In 2012, one of the Trustees who brought the action against NIWA said Heartland had not donated anything to the case.

However, Heartland is known to have been active in NZ in the past, providing funding to the NZ Climate Science Coalition and a related International Coalition, as well as financially backing prominent climate “sceptic” campaigns in Australia.

An extract from a 1999 letter from the Heartland Institute to tobacco company Philip Morris. University of California, San Francisco, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library

The Heartland Institute also has a long record of working with tobacco companies, as the letter on the right illustrates. (You can read that letter and other industry documents in full here. Meanwhile, Heartland’s reply to critics of its tobacco and fossil fuel campaigns is here.)

Earlier this month, the news broke that major tobacco companies will finally admit they “deliberately deceived the American public”, in “corrective statements” that would run on prime-time TV, in newspapers and even on cigarette packs.

It’s taken a 15-year court battle with the US government to reach this point, and it shows that evidence can trump doubt-mongering in the long run.

A similar day may come for those who actively work to cast doubt on climate science.

Jim Salinger does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

When aliens attack Guest Work Jan 21

No Comments

The fourth part in a summer science series by NIWA

Your favourite lake may look picturesque, calm and inviting but beware what lurks beneath – aliens are on the attack.

Aquatic plants in lakes are a natural and important part of lake communities and provide many benefits to fish, wildlife, water quality and people.

Alien submerged weeds, however, are plant species from other countries that have had spectacular success in invading New Zealand lakes and are continuing to spread. In particular, members of the oxygen weed family (Ceratophyllum demersum or hornwort), Egeria densa, and Lagarosiphon major) are having major impacts on lake biodiversity and amenities.

Their ability to establish quickly and form solid bands of weed growing to over eight meters high around the edges of lakes creates a number of problems for lake users and the natural plants and animals that live in the lake.

As well as smothering native plant communities, dense invasive weed growth can restrict the movement of water, cause flooding, block irrigation and drinking water intakes, destroy habitats for native fish and wildlife, decrease water quality and restrict recreational activities such as boating, fishing and swimming.

Diver in invasive weeds bed  Source: NIWA

Diver in invasive weeds bed Source: NIWA

Alien submerged weeds are also causing serious problems for electricity generation by clogging hydro dams. One of the best examples of this is in the Waikato hydro system in the North Island where weeds can cause millions of dollars in lost generation and weed control each year.

Many South Island hydro lakes are also under threat and NIWA scientists are working with Meridian Energy and Land Information New Zealand to control the spread of lagarosiphon which grows rapidly and can block water station intakes if not effectively managed.

Other worse alien submerged weeds causing problems in the North Island are not yet known to be in the South Island and lake managers and scientists keep a close eye on unaffected areas to ensure there are no new outbreaks.

Today aerial spraying is one of the most effective ways of controlling large areas of the weed, with suction dredging and hand weeding used to control smaller infestations.

Unfortunately submerged weed species are not the only aliens that have found their way into New Zealand lakes and rivers. The widespread liberation of alien pest fish species including koi carp, rudd, catfish and gambusia (also known as mosquito fish) are compounding problems and contributing to the poor status of some lakes.

Lagarosiphon major over Charocean meadow  Source: NIWA

Lagarosiphon major over Charocean meadow Source: NIWA

Pest fish can make lake waters cloudy by stirring up bottom sediments, feeding on native plants and by increasing nutrient levels that promote more algae. They also compete for food with native fish species.

Once alien invasive aquatic plants and fish have invaded a waterway and become established, they are very difficult to remove. Preventing their spread into new lakes and managing lakes that are affected by these species should be the highest priority.

You can help by knowing the enemy – recognise the four worst waterway weeds and take note of any changes in lakes, ponds, rivers and streams you are familiar with. Many of these opportunists make their first appearance via ornamental ponds before escaping or spreading into natural water systems. Transfer by boats and trailers also spreads them.

Always check boats (including anchor wells and bilges), trailers and fishing gear for plants and remove them when you leave the water.

If you spot them and they’re new, contact the Department of Conservation or closest regional council pest plant officers.

Three types of weeds  Source: NIWA

Three types of weeds Source: NIWA

Snails on the loose

If you own a fish tank or outdoor pond, you might find this story familiar: one day you notice a small snail. A week later the snail has companions and before you know it, the tank is crawling in them.

This is exactly what has happened in at least two New Zealand lakes with unknown longterm consequences for their ecosystems.

The culprit is the ear pond snail, Lymnaea auricularia, discovered three years ago in Lake Rotomahana in the Bay of Plenty, and shortly afterwards in Auckland’s Lake Pupuke.

The ear pond snail is an invasive species that hails from Europe and Asia and easily spotted. It grows up to 30mm high and 25mm wide, making it larger than our native freshwater snails. It also has black blotches visible through its shell. First recorded in New Zealand in 1977, this snail is known to be common in ponds and aquariums throughout the central North Island.

It only takes one opportunity for a species like this to become established in a water body and, if conditions are right, they multiply and spread.

Scientists say there are at least 10 other introduced snails in various freshwater habitats around the country, several of which have established sizeable communities. This includes a discovery in March 2010 of a super-sized apple snail, Pomacea diffusa, in the Waikato River. Apart from threatening natural ecosystems, these invasive pests are also known to carry parasites.

It’s easy to stop an alien snail getting into the wild – don’t empty you aquarium in waterways and clean your boats or watercraft if you’re moving between lakes.

Meanwhile, NIWA freshwater ecologist Tracey Burton is keen to find out just how the ear pond snail has spread. If you find one, let her know at 

Beaches buffer our shores from Mother Nature’s might Guest Work Jan 13

No Comments

This is the third in a summer series from NIWA

Most Kiwis appreciate the recreational opportunities our beaches offer – whether for beachcombing, surfing, walking the dog, bird-watching, swimming or simply snoozing in the sun. But did you know that beaches are also Nature’s way of buffering and protecting seafront real estate and infrastructure, such as parks and roads, against high winds and waves during powerful storms or rough seas?

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 9.56.29 AMIf you live at the beach or visit it regularly, you will have seen how sand on the beach goes through cycles of erosion and accretion (build up).

The erosion process can be dramatic – taking place when big steep seas, combined with high tides, cause waves to pound the shoreline. Big surges of water rush up the beach with considerable force, scarping the dune face.

However, the beach fights back by allowing a proportion of the uprush to percolate into the sediments. As a result, the backrush has less power than the uprush, protecting the beach from erosion.

Gravel beaches are particularly good at protecting themselves from erosion, says NIWA marine geologist and coastal oceanographer Dr Terry Hume, “because they are very permeable”.

“With a lot of the uprush water lost into the gravel, the backrush has little power to erode the beach face. Furthermore, the powerful uprush carries with it gravel that gets tossed up by the waves to build up a gravel ridge above high-tide level. This ridge prevents waves tipping over the ridge, creating further erosion.”

Sand stripped from the beach and dunes during storms is carried out to sea by the backwash and undertow to the shallow nearshore, where it is deposited in banks. Surfers know this well as waves peeling over these banks in shallow water provide excellent surfing.

Dr Hume, a keen surfer himself, says the formation of these banks is the beach fighting back.

“When waves break on the nearshore banks they absorb wave energy so that the waves have less power when they arrive at the beach, buffering it from further erosion.”

Accretion of sand takes place during calmer periods of long, low sea swell and is very gradual. The banks slowly migrate to the shore where they weld onto the beach.

Sand that dries out at low tide is picked up by the wind and blown into the dunes where is it is stabilised by dune-binding plants such as spinifex and pingao. The build-up of this buffer of sand in the beach and dunes completes the erosion/accretion cycle. However, the intensity of the next storm will determine whether the slow fight back was enough to buffer against the next bout of erosion.

“Understanding how beaches buffer themselves against storms has taught us how to fight like Nature,” says Dr Hume.

“Coastal management authorities are now using the natural buffering processes of beaches in their own approach to beach erosion control and preservation. For example, beach nourishment (the process where sand lost by erosion is replaced by sand from another source by mechanical means) is often now used instead of hard structures such as sea walls, which cause waves to scour the beach in front. Dune conservation, by fencing and planting, is also encouraged as a means to build up the buffer of sand.”

Fast facts about sand:

Origins: Rock or shell

Time to form: Decades (soft shell, such as cockles and horse mussels) to millennia (hard rock, such as feldspar and quartz).

Distance travelled: Hundreds of kilometres over millennia. Longest journey in New Zealand is about 400km (Mt Taranaki to North Cape).

Uses in New Zealand:

sand paper (e.g., from garnet sands like those at Hunts Beach and Bruce Bay, Westland)

steel industry (e.g., Taharoa ironsand, ilmenite)

glass (e.g., Parengarenga quartz sand, Northland)

concrete (Pakiri Beach, Kaipara Harbour)

filler under roads, pavements, drains and bowling greens.

Sand trivia:

To qualify as sand, grains must be between 0.06mm and 2mm in diameter.

1200oC is the temperature needed to convert quartz sand to glass.

Quicksand is sand that has been so saturated with water that the friction between sand particles is reduced and they can no longer support weight.

Sand can produce high- or low-frequency sounds under certain conditions – nobody is really sure how. This strange phenomenon occurs at some New Zealand beaches – such as Waihi Beach (Bay of Plenty) when conditions are right.

Dr Terry Hume is a marine geologist and coastal oceanographer at NIWA’s Hamilton office. His research interests focus on large-scale coastal processes, including the natural transport and storage of sand, coastal hazards, and beach erosion; and developing and applying beach and estuary classification for research and management purposes. He holds an Honorary Associate Professorship at the University of Auckland and an Honorary Lectureship at the University of Waikato. He’s also a keen surfer.


Summer science fun for kids Guest Work Jan 08

No Comments

The second part in a NIWA summer science series

Science experiments can be fun, messy, done in the dark or even while you’re asleep. Here are some holiday ideas children – and their parents – can do over the summer break.

Children crossing Major Jones Bridge, Tongariro River

Children crossing Major Jones Bridge, Tongariro River credit: NIWA & Dave Allen

Head in the clouds? While you’re there take some photographs and start your own cloud collection. You will be amazed at how many different types of clouds there are.

Invest in a good cloud handbook. Pocket-sized is handy to help you identify cloud formations anytime and anywhere. Make a note of the clouds you spot and check out how rare they are. The Met Office Pocket Cloud Book is a good example and covers everything from common to unusual cloud formations and explains the atmospheric processes that create them. It can be ordered from

Alternatively head online here.

Help a NIWA scientist

NIWA atmosphere scientist Alan Thomas is on the lookout for observations of NLCs in December and January. These are Noctilucent Clouds that may be visible an hour or two after sunset or before sunrise as wispy blue clouds. They are most likely to be seen in Southland and are formed at 80km high (the Meosphere). If you happen to spot one, take a photograph and send it to

2. Star-gazing.

On a warm, moonless night head outside, sit back and look up. A pair of binoculars would be handy. Look out for common star formations, satellites and meteors.

There are a number of websites that will help you learn what you are seeing: – excellent free planetarium programme for PC. – updates recent space events heading our way. – for satellite viewing opportunities.

The GoSkyWatch iPad app is also excellent for young astronomers.

Did you know?

NIWA operates an atmospheric research station at Lauder, 35km from Alexandra in the South Island. The clear skies and isolation make it perfect for observing what is going on in the sky. Lauder specialises in measuring CFCs, Ozone, UV light levels and greenhouse gases and has a wide range of world class instruments.

3. Identify seaweeds by shape and colour and smell.

Credit: NIWA & Dave Allen

Credit: NIWA & Dave Allen

Document your findings by photographing them – don’t take the seaweed away from the beach as there are important natural processes taking place when seaweed is washed up on shore.

Seaweed is very clever – its feeds millions of marine creatures and provides at least half the earth’s oxygen.

You can learn about seaweed on the web or go to the library and ask for New Zealand Seaweeds, An Illustrated Guide. It’s a new book written by NIWA scientist and seaweed lover Wendy Nelson. Dr Nelson’s selection of about 250 species of seaweed covers just over a quarter of known species found in New Zealand.

And find out what foods contain seaweed. Here’s a clue: chocolate milkshakes.

4. Join NatureWatch NZ.

Log on to where you can share what you see in nature, meet other nature watchers and learn about New Zealand animals, plants and fungi. Just join up and start adding your finds. There’s also a Facebook page

5. If there’s a stream near you, there’s something interesting to be found.

NIWA has developed a tool called SHMAK or the Stream Health Monitoring and Assessment Kit. It lets you measure the health of a stream and helps you understand what it takes to make a stream healthy. You might have been involved in using it at your school.

Over the holidays here’s how you can check out what’s in a stream near you:

Eat a two litre tub of ice cream, then wash the container out and add some water out of a stream.

Clamp your hands together, now find a rock about the same size and carefully pick it up.

Gently brush the rock so any creepy-crawlies end up in the water in the ice cream container.

Now work out what the bugs are you see in the container, the more types there are the better off your stream is.

There’s a bug identification guide here:

6. And lastly here’s some quick scientific fun:

a) Fill a bucket with water and swing it round over your head – do it outside and make sure you’re not going to hit anything or anyone (also you don’t want a bucket with a dodgy handle). See what happens. Why doesn’t the water fall out?

b) Design and build something that will stop an egg from breaking or cracking if you drop it from a height of one metre. You need to slow it down and stop it hitting a hard surface so think carefully about what you can use to do this. If at first you don’t succeed, offer to cook scrambled eggs for dinner.

c) Measure everyone at your place just before they go to bed. Do it again first thing in the morning and see how much longer they are. Are the girls growing more than the boys at night? What about mum or dad? Is it all about gravity and if so, what happens to astronauts when they go into space?

What the world around you can tell you about the weather Peter Griffin Dec 24

No Comments

Part 1 of a summer series published by NIWA

Forecasting whether we’re in for a hot, dry holiday or wet, humid conditions this summer can be a complex and tricky business.

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 12.54.28 PMWhile modern state-of-the-art high-resolution forecasting models, like those run by NIWA’s supercomputer, have demonstrated significant accuracy and continue to improve each year, Mother Nature can tell us even more about the weather ahead – just by observing patterns and sequences.

Using environmental indicators to anticipate local weather and climate outcomes is common practice among many indigenous people around the world, including Māori.

By observing patterns and sequences in natural events – such as the behaviour of birds, the blooming of certain trees and flowers, and the movements of the stars, Māori have long used environmental indicators to forecast local weather and climate – helping to manage daily and seasonal activities.

Traditional indicators to forecast weather and climate vary from place to place because of geography, different landscapes and seascapes, and between iwi or hapū.

For example – central North Island iwi Ngāi Tuhoe use the sun to predict approaching storms. When a vivid halo encircles the sun, the expected outcome is a storm approaching. A pale and dim halo encircling the sun suggests a storm is far away. When pukeko are observed heading for higher ground, Northland iwi Ngāti Wai will expect a storm and possible flooding. South Island iwi Kai Tahu predict that a long, hot summer will follow when the ti kōuka (cabbage tree) flowers early and profusely.

Often more than one indicator is used to forecast weather or climate in the days, months and seasons ahead. Where there are discrepancies among the indicators, a consensus-based approach is usually taken. If the majority of indicators point in a given direction then a forecast is most often made in that direction – in a similar way to probabilistic seasonal forecasting methods that rely on consensus amongst different computer models to forecast changes in climate.

Environmental indicators are still used by many indigenous peoples around the world in the same way – for example, indigenous groups in northern India predict the onset of the monsoon in June or July using environmental indicators such as the blooming of the golden shower tree and the direction of the local winds.

Farmers in Peru use the mid-year appearance of the Pleiades star cluster to forecast the timing and quantity of precipitation in the wet season, months later. Accuracy of the seasonal forecasts is around 65 per cent – exceeding the accuracy of modern scientific forecasts with similar outlook periods by 5–10 per cent. Similar studies are taking place in Australia and Samoa.

NIWA environmental scientist Darren King has been studying traditional Māori methods for predicting weather and seasonal conditions with kaumātua (elders) from across Aotearoa, and says modern and traditional forecasting systems can complement each other.

“Using Māori knowledge to forecast local weather and climate reflects the Māori worldview that all things are connected by whakapapa (genealogy) and that subtle natural linkages in the environment can reveal much about atmospheric conditions,” says Mr King.

“Climate has always been important to Māori. It influences which plants, trees and birds are found in various parts of the country and it affects winds, waves and ocean currents. This knowledge has not only been vital to survival – by helping whanau to prepare and plan for weather hazards and climate variability, but also influences decisions about when to plant, harvest or fish.

“Learning more about the Māori knowledge system can contribute to better understanding of local weather and climate changes as well as promote awareness of the inherent linkages between people and the natural world. Lessons such as these are critical for informing adaptation strategies for the future.”

Darren King is an environmental scientist at NIWA. He manages the Climate Applications Group based in Auckland and is also a member of the National Climate Centre and the National Centre of Māori Environmental Research, Te Kūwaha. His research interests include climate-induced natural hazards, mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and its relationship with contemporary science, coastal evolution and tsunami risk.

Joint ventures in science – Veronika Meduna Guest Work Dec 20

No Comments

Photo of Veronika MedunaVeronika Meduna from Radio New Zealand’s Our Changing World writes about New Zealand, Germany and the science that links them.

New Zealand and Germany are about as far apart geographically as it is possible, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for forging close cultural and diplomatic links. This year marks the 60th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two countries, and that gave me a chance to explore connections in the areas of science and innovation.

The New Zealand government invests more in joint research with Germany than with any other country, but I was still surprised to find that every sixth New Zealand scientist collaborates with somebody at a German research organisation.

My first stop in a tour organised by the German Federal Foreign Office took me to Oldenburg, a city that promotes itself as the Ȕbermorgenstadt (day-after-tomorrow-city) and was the German City of Science in 2009. Te Papa research scientist Heidi Meudt is currently at the University of Oldenburg as a fellow with the Humboldt Foundation, exploring the evolutionary history of my botanical namesake.

Veronicas are a global group of usually small, herbaceous plants with white or blue flowers. In New Zealand, however, they have grown into trees and shrubs, and their looks have led early 20th-century botanists to classify them as a separate group, which most of us know as hebes.

When Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander came to New Zealand, they named three species as Veronica. The name hebe didn’t appear until 1789 when it was given to a South American species. In the 1920s, New Zealand and American botanists, among them Leonard Cockayne, recognised that our plants belonged with the South American species and they transferred all shrubby species into their own group, Hebe. Later, WRB Oliver classified what he called the ‘Veronica-like’ New Zealand plants as Parahebe.

However, Phil Garnock-Jones, a botanist at Victoria University and Te Papa, has published a revision of the classification, placing hebes back within the Veronica genus in recognition of their evolutionary relationship.

He has established a long-standing collaboration with evolutionary botanist Dirk Albach, at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, who has been tracking the evolutionary history and diversification of Northern Hemisphere Veronicas. They recognise that all our woody species have evolved from a herbaceous Veronica ancestor which arrived here about 10 million years ago.

Heidi is investigating how certain evolutionary phenomena can act as drivers of diversity. With the help of next-generation DNA sequencing methods, she is studying radiation (the diversification into many morphologically different species over a short time period) and polyploidy (the duplication of genomes, which is a common phenomenon in plants), and their respective roles in the evolution of diversity.

Next stop: Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg and the historic residence of Prussian kings and the German emperor until 1918. Today, Potsdam is a major centre of science, with more than 30 research institutes, including the Albert Einstein Institute, also known as the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, which hosted a conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Roy Kerr’s mathematical feat.

Fifty years ago, the Christchurch mathematician revolutionised our understanding of black holes when he discovered a solution to Einstein’s gravitational field equations. His work has been described as the most important single discovery within general relativity in the last 50 years, and observations are now beginning to prove him right.

The Kerr Solution provides an exact description of rotating black holes and clarifies that their size and shape can be characterised by just two numbers: mass and rate of rotation, or spin.

In May, Roy Kerr became the first New Zealander to be awarded the Einstein Medal for his achievements and when I met him and his wife Margaret in Potsdam, they had just completed a two-month European tour of honour.

In this interview, Roy recalls his discovery and the response to its announcement in 1963. Reinhard Genzel, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, discusses current research and evidence that supports the existence of a massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, and Bernard Schutz, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, describes current and future projects that have been designed to detect gravitational waves.

Close by is the Albert Einstein Science Park, with the double-walled Einstein tower and its astrophysical observatory, built to prove Einstein’s theory.  But I was visiting the science park to meet Gerd Helle at the GeoResearch Centre to talk about swamp kauri and its role as an archive of climate information.

Throughout Northland, ancient logs of kauri lie buried in bogs, often for millennia. Swamp kauri is a precious resource for artisan furniture makers, but scientists are also finding that sub-fossil kauri logs are a treasure trove of information about past environmental conditions. These long-lived trees have become time capsules, spanning some of the most interesting chapters in earth’s climate history.

Gerd is part of a collaboration with Waikato University, using swamp kauri to reconstruct past periods of abrupt climate change. One of the first steps in the effort is to determine how old each kauri is, and at Waikato University’s Radiocarbon Dating laboratory, Alan Hogg is using C14 carbon dating and another method called accelerator mass spectroscopy to build up a continuous record of dates. However, if a sample goes too far back in time, radiocarbon dates don’t match up to calendar years because radiocarbon levels in the atmosphere fluctuate. To correlate the information from the trees with past climate events, Jonathan Palmer, a dendrochronologist at the University of New South Wales, is analysing tree rings, while Gerd is measuring isotope ratios of each sample to complete the picture of environmental conditions at the time.

Waikato University has also joined forces with the University of Bremen and its Marum Institute, in a venture called InterCoast. This project is focusing on current trends in the environmental management of coastal regions and was established in 2009 with the first intake of PhD students from both countries.

This initiative builds on the long-standing collaboration between marine geologist Gerold Wefer, from the Marum Institute, and the late Terry Healy, from Waikato University, whose friendship began when they were both post-docs during the 1980s. The multi-disciplinary InterCoast team aims to cover all aspects of coastal and marine science as well as related international law and cultural issues. It deals with all challenges associated with coastal and shelf-sea areas subject to significant global changes. In this interview, Waikato University coastal ecologist Chris Battershill explains some of the projects that are currently underway, particularly following the Rena disaster.

In the south of Germany, I spent time in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg, where I met the people behind the world’s largest airborne observatory.

SOFIA, which stands for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, flew its first Southern Hemisphere missions from Christchurch in July this year to study space objects that are best observed from his part of the globe. A joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt), SOFIA carries a 2.5-metre telescope in a modified Boeing 747 special-performance aircraft. The plane flies at altitudes as high as 13,700 meters to provide access to astronomical signals at far-infrared wavelengths that would otherwise be blocked because water vapour in the atmosphere absorbs in the infrared spectrum.

During the southern flights, the telescope carried a spectrometer called GREAT, or the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (right), which has already been used on missions in the Northern Hemisphere where it has helped astronomers to observe the formation of a star and to detect new molecules in space.

The scientific targets for SOFIA’s southern deployment included objects in the central regions of the Milky Way, which are much more accessible from the Southern Hemisphere, and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are easily visible with the naked eye in the southern sky.

The newest collaborative project between Germany and New Zealand involves the University of Auckland’s faculty of engineering and the Fraunhofer Institute for manufacturing, engineering and automation (Fraunhofer IPA) and is focusing on advanced mechatronics and biomedical engineering.

The Auckland team, led by Peter Xu, has already developed robots that mimic the processes of chewing and swallowing. They are being used to develop and test new food textures and to measure changes during mastication. While a small start-up company is marketing the robot in New Zealand, the Fraunhofer Institute wants to extend its use to dentistry, applying the same machine to test dental implants and to monitor wear in artificial tooth material.

Alexander Verl is a director of the Fraunhofer IPA, which recently won the German future technology award for its flexible ‘elephant-trunk’ robotic arm and its application in the manufacturing industry. The low-cost technology is produced by 3D-printing and could also find a market niche in New Zealand as a fruit-picking robot.

The joint effort builds on the long-standing collaboration and exchange between the two team leaders. Professor Xu has worked in Germany as a Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellow, and Professor Verl is the first engineer to have received the New Zealand Royal Society’s Julius von Haast Fellowship Award.

Science communication failure and political failure contributed to Haiyan’s death toll Guest Work Nov 27

No Comments

by George Jones

I watched the TV news from the island of Mandanao, south of typhoon Haiyan’s path through the Philippines for several days before landfall.  The local name was Yolanda, and it featured on every newscast, amidst items about a high level corruption investigation involving hundreds of millions of dollars, and anticipation about how Miss Philippines would rate in the Miss Universe contest.

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 10.22.23 AMMost of the news was in Tagalog, but I gained sufficient knowledge about each item to understand, from the occasional English words used.  A few details were forthcoming from my hosts.

The information relating to Yolanda was provided by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, professionally laid out, with a tracking map with predictions of the future track and intensity.  The English words “refuge” and “storm surge” were used in every newscast.  It was stated that it was category 5, and as I knew the details about Hurricane Katrina, which ended up category 3 when it hit the shore, but with a storm surge generated when it was a 5, then I was concerned for the safety of the inhabitants, especially those on Leyte Island, the first landfall.  But I assumed that everything was in hand, with such warnings over several days.

Instead of flying north to Manila, I chose to take a bus, and to see for myself aspects of the country, and especially the damaged areas.   I was surprised that the bus service was operating.  It is 1500 km, with two ferry crossings. It is meant to take 38 hours, but in the event it took 70 hours.   The route was through Leyte Island, and we were in Tacloban around the middle of the day, five days after the typhoon, before most of the assistance arrived.

I observed increasing wind damage as we drove north up Leyte Island.  Large numbers of coconuts on the ground, broken trees, especially banana, and the occasional large tree blown over.  This was south of the point where the typhoon came ashore, driven by off-shore winds, as the typhoon rotates counter-clockwise.

Then a dramatic change as we came to the point where the storm surge came through, driven by onshore winds.  There were large areas of damage, attributable to both wind and water.  Almost all the power poles were down, and very large areas of devastation, metres deep, covering tens of square kilometres.   In that mess were upended and broken trucks, cars, roofing material, building material, the shells of houses.  A boy was using a mangled piece of roofing material as a sun-hat.   Washing was drying on the downed power lines and fences.

I talked to several people so have a few anecdotal stories from fellow-travellers.   It became very evident that the locals did not know what a storm surge was.   In fact one woman was interviewed on TV and said in English that if somebody had said tsunami, she would have behaved very differently.

Most of the population uses Tagalog as a common language among the hundreds of native languages, with a little English understood in the provinces.  It is very different in the tourist areas and big cities, where most can speak English.

The provinces are also where most of the poor live, who cannot get a good education, and do not own TVs.  Some own cellphones, so at a guess there are more cellphones in Tacloban than TVs.

Unemployment is very high, and there are many poorly constructed houses, shacks or hovels along the roadway.

A couple of weeks before there were elections for the lowest level of administration, the barangays, followed by accusations of many corrupt practices, including vote-buying.  Corruption is endemic at all levels of administration, so money often does not get to a proposed project, but is syphoned off beforehand.

The comment was made to me that Leyte Island and the islands to its west were typhoon alley, so they know how to handle them, and were surprised by this one, because they did not know it was going to be so big.

But the information was there, just not interpreted by the population.   I know what I would have advised.  Go for the higher ground in the forests on the hills behind, taking some head protection, try not to be under a coconut tree, and wait it out.  It is a journey of no more that two kilometres.  The wind would blow and drop coconuts and branches on the ground, but there would be no water except heavy rain. It would be an uncomfortable night, but safe.  This could have been the situation on all the islands in the typhoon’s path – I only saw one of them.

I expected that the President and everybody at every level of government, including the newly-elected barangay officials would make sure that this would happen.  I do not know what actually happened, and await with interest any reports.

But I do know that there was a massive science communication failure, that resulted in several thousand unnecessary deaths.  If the system had been working, there may have been only a few deaths, by falling coconuts or trees.  And none killed by a wall of water and flotsam many metres deep sweeping through the low-lying coastal areas.

Oh, well, there are too many people on this Earth.  Maybe Death is preferable to War, Pestilence and Famine, the other three horses of the Apocalypse.

But is seems a great pity that it happened this way, when it was preventable.  I cried when I realised that.  I was in the city of Tacloban, where I thought “There could be a thousand bodies under that mess!”.

 George Jones is a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand, retired scientist and adventurer.

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer