Friday, December 30, 2016

Wagstaffe's top science stories of 2016

2016 was quite the year — science stories included! I had the chance to cover a wide range of topics but there were a few 'themes' that stuck out for me.

High impact earthquakes

Major earthquakes rocked countries all around the world in 2016. But a few key quakes demonstrated that the death toll doesn't have to be high for its impact to be devastating.
Monks walk in front of the Cathedral of St. Benedict in Norcia, central Italy, Italy, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. The third powerful earthquake to hit Italy in two months destroyed a Benedictine cathedral, seen here, as well as a medieval tower and other beloved landmarks that had survived the earlier jolts across a mountainous region of small historic towns. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)
Central Italy was hit with a series of shallow earthquakes that destroyed centuries-old towns.
The first earthquake, a magnitude 6.0 that struck on August 24, killed almost 300 people. Three more earthquakes between magnitude 5.4 and 6.5 struck the same region in October.
The cost to rebuild the ancient structures will be in the tens of millions, with many 14th century churches and historic palazzos reduced to rubble. An incredible amount of history and livelihood was destroyed.
Chris and Viv Young look at damage caused by an earthquake along State Highway One near the town of Ward on New Zealand's South Island. (Anthony Phelps/Reuters)
On Nov 13, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake stuck the northern island of New Zealand. There were only two deaths, but the damage to infrastructure was massive. Roads buckled, roughly 100,000 landslides were triggered and a small island community was cut off completely for a few days.
Both Italy and New Zealand will work to recover from these earthquakes for decades to come, and for many their lives and communities will never be the same.

Global warming: the good, the bad and the ugly

For many reasons, climate change was a hot topic in 2016. About this time last year I was just returning from the Paris Climate Change Conference after witnessing the historic signing. It was an optimistic moment, with 200 countries backing the treaty, but it took most of the year to actually make it legally binding.
The Eiffel tower is illuminated in green with the words "Paris Agreement is Done", to celebrate the Paris U.N. COP21 Climate Change agreement in Paris, France, November 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen/File Photo - RTX2SSYI (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)
All the while, global warming continued. An epic El Niño in the equatorial Pacific Ocean helped set global-temperature records in the first five months of the year, and 2016 is on track to become the third warmest year in a row.

Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal fired generator at a steel factory in the industrial province of Hebei, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
All eyes will be on the Trump Administration in 2017, with lots of questions about what will happen to climate initiatives already in place. But there is more optimism too.
This past year, all around the world individuals, business and governments took a massive shift away from fossil fuels.
In February Morocco turned on the switch on first phase of world's largest solar plant that will provide electricity for more than 1 million people when complete.
Elon Musk, Chairman of SolarCity and CEO of Tesla Motors, speaking Solar City's Inside Energy Summit in New York. Last week SolarCity announced it had built a solar panel the most efficient in the industry. (Reuters)
Elon Musk introduced his latest green energy venture — solar panel roofs that are comparable in price but more durable than regular roof tiles.
Global renewable investment is at an all-time high with developing countries surpassing developed countries in their investment in green energy for the first time.
And an increasing number of organisations are selling shares, stocks and bonds in companies connected to fossil fuels. A trend that is likely to continue through 2017.

Gravitational waves: a new tool

It still blows my mind that the scientific community continues to make fundamental discoveries about the world around us and this year it was gravitational waves.
After decades of searching, scientists detected the ripples in the fabric of space time. The signal came from the merger of two black holes from around a billion years ago.
The discovery not only affirmed Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, almost 100 years after he had published it, but it also provided the most direct evidence yet that black holes exist.
And it means we have a new way of observing the universe — by listening to these waves. Who knows what else they will show us.
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