Category Archives: In the news

Plastic all around us

By Magda.

On this blog we have covered the topic of the marine garbage patch on several occasions (for example here, here and here) as well as how important recycling of plastic waste is. So far, most research was focussed on the influence of plastic on the marine environment, but recently several articles have drawn attention to micro-particles of plastic in lakes.

The first study to focus on this issue was conducted on the great lakes and found large amounts of micro-plastic within the lake (up to 466,000 particles/km2). The researchers attributed many of the perfectly spherical particles to the use of cosmetic products containing micro beads. Due to the small size these particles cannot be filtered and eventually will end up in our water ways.


Clitellate worm (B,C) Fluorescent image of the mid-body showing fluorescent microplastic particles (white arrows) in the digestive tract. From Imhof et al., Contamination of beach sediments of a subalpine lake with microplastic particles, Current biology, 2013

And they are harmful – not only to the environment, as shown by another study conducted on Lake Garda, which found plastic in the digestion system of worms and other freshwater species, which is a starting point to introduce plastic into the food cycle and thus plastic will end up on our plates as well.

Unfortunatly micro-plastic will also form due to degradation of bigger plastic particles.

And, it doesn’t even stop there:

Micro-plastic is small and light enough to get transported by wind and has been detected in several products that we consume, including milk, honey and drinking water (found by a Swiss consumer affairs TV report). And most likely this list will get a lot longer, following more studies on this topic.

Many manufactures of cosmetic products using micro-beads (used in many toothpastes and body/facial scrub,…) have agreed to not use micro-plastic in their products from 2015. However, this will not solve the problem completely, since micro-particles of plastic are also formed by degradation of larger items.

The Amazon rainforest tipping point

By Biance

Last night I watched an interesting documentary on the Amazon rainforest dealing with the consequences of a changing climate. The documentary is part of the 6-prt TV climate series ‘Tipping points’ and investigates how the rainforest manages to deal with our shifting climate.


Parts of the forest show first signs of changes, with big trees dying and fewer growing as these trees need a lot of water to stay healthy. While the death of such huge trees causes a fair bit of destruction, new trees emerge in the gaps. However, these are smaller trees that need less water and grow less high. Together with deforestation, fires and more frequent draughts it is a first step towards an ecological tipping point where our rainforests could turn into savannahs.

Often rainforests are described as our lungs, as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen and keep our atmosphere in balance by doing so. Recently NASA found that the Amazon inhales more CO2 than it emits and the forest therefore reduces global warming. However, when dying the forests releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which is estimated to be 1.9 billion tons each year.

Deforestation and fires to clear forest for farmland has already changed the regional climate drastically in terms of rainfall patterns and distribution.
Furthermore, the climatic phenomenon of the El Nino Southern Oscillation is associated with dry conditions in Brazil and the northern Amazon and its frequency increased in the past years and is expected to further increase in the future.

This is a drastic change for nature and for humans as we rely on these forests to somehow keep our atmosphere in balance.
The rainforest stores an equivalent of about 15 years of human-caused emissions in its soil and biomass and a massive die-back could greatly accelerate climate change. About 2 billion tons of CO2 are taken out of the air each year by the rainforests photosynthesis, however, during draughts in 2005 and 2010 this process reversed with 3 billion tons of CO2 emitted by the Amazon. This caused a net 5 billion ton increase in CO2 to the atmosphere.
Our changing climate, fires and more frequent draughts in change with sudden floods are pushing the Amazon to a tipping point and we are closer than you would think, with large areas dying or being already dead. If we loose the rainforest, the climate will change drastically and nature will never be the same, as we know it now.

The A-factor

Akademik Shokalskiy stuck after weather conditions changed and sea ice closed down behind the vessel.

Akademik Shokalskiy stuck after weather conditions changed and sea ice closed down behind the vessel.

By Bianca

I just stumbled over a detailed media report about the Russian Akademik Shokalskiy that recently had to be rescued out of Antarctica’s sea ice, and have been reminded about our excursion to the continent.

Although I do agree that a lot went wrong on their expedition, and human failures played an important role, it has also be admitted that you simply can’t change the A-factor and you need to adapt to it as much as possible.

The A-factor simply stands for the Antarctic-factor and is a common saying under Antarctic expeditioners as the climate is so unpredictable and weather conditions can change quickly. Continue reading

Extreme seasons: Australia melts while the US freezes

Observed maximum temperatures for Monday, 13th January, 2014. Image from BOM.

Observed maximum temperatures for Monday, 13th January, 2014. Image from BOM.

By Claire

I’m writing this post from hot hot Canberra, Australia, in my office, in front of my desk fan. In case you didn’t pick up on it, IT’S FREAKING HOT HERE!!!

This week, a large mass of warm, desert air is slowly making its way across southern Australia, bringing as many as five consecutive days above 40°C (104°F). Here in Canberra, we are forecast to swelter through five consecutive days over 38°C (100°F). Continue reading

Science inspired art: Haiku for progress

Art!? Haikus?! What does any of this have to do with a research blog? Everything. Scientific findings can be complicated, are often dripping with jargon, and easy to overlook or ignore. Science communication is most valuable when it is easy to understand. Enter watercolour and haiku.

Johnson Future

Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has distilled the entire International Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment report  into 19 haikus with accompanying watercolour paintings and it is brilliant! Johnson has generated a disarming and inspiring account of the present state of our climate system. Using this creative path, he has made an otherwise daunting and dense scientific report (>2,000 pages long) into an intelligent and emotional piece of art.

Below is a slideshow of Johnson’s work.

Please visit Sightline Daily for the full article and links to pdf’s of these wonderful pieces.

I challenge you all to describe your research or profession with a simple haiku. Here is mine:

Ancient stalagmite

a window into the past

tell us your story

Denmark passes 120% Wind Power

By Nick,

Last year, we reported on the impressive feat of Germany managing to source 50% of its electricity needs purely from solar: here and here. This was due to a period of sunny weather combined with the closure of several nuclear power plants following the Fukushima crisis. Now Denmark has succeeding in generating more than 120% of its energy needs from Wind Power, achieving this feet on November the 4th. This too was a combination of some windy weather and the opening of Denmark’s largest offshore wind farm in early september.

Denmark's wind power generation over 100% of consumption.

Denmark’s wind power generation over 100% of consumption on November the 3rd.

Continue reading

Lego, late nights and the working habits of grad students

By Nick,

The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together.

The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together.

Last week, Lego unveiled a new character, a female scientist by the name of Professor C. Bodin, with a coveted Nobrick prize. The wonderful thing is that the description of this new character does not explicitly say “woman scientist”. Its just a scientist character description using the word she. The company was rightly praised by news outlets and women scientists groups, as helping to break down gender stereotypes regarding women and science. But a couple of stereotypes remained: first the white lab-coat, which isn’t really too much of a big deal, but also in the description were the words:

“She’ll spend all night in her lab analyzing how to connect bricks of different sizes and shapes…”

Do scientists work all night? Is this stereotype gaining popularity? Is it even true? And if it is, is this a good thing or a bad thing for scientific progress?

Continue reading