A Tour of 2012's Science Highlights

Dec 31, 2012

With 2012 drawing to a close, we’ve taken a look back at some of the big moments in science this year. Joining me on this walk down memory lane were Susan Avery, president and director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Eric Davidson, president and senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center; and Gary Borisy, outgoing president and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory.

  1. Discovery of the Higgs Boson has garnered the title of Breakthrough of the Year from Science Magazine. Although fundamental to physicists’ understanding of how the universe functions, Higgs Boson is undeniably esoteric – difficult for most of us to cozy up to. That’s why I so enjoyed Cape Cod Times columnist Sean Gonsalves very personal take on the discovery.
  2. Humans return to deepest spot on Earth. Mars rovers are all well and good but there’s plenty left to explore here on Earth, and this year marked an historic return to the deepest spot on Earth. In March, James Cameron became the third person ever – and the first in over fifty years – to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
  3. Climate change takes center stage (kind of). 2012 appears to be on track to at least tie for the title of hottest year on record; Arctic ice hit a record low this summer, while drought in the U.S. reached record proportions. And then there was Sandy. Surveys show that the majority of Americans now think that global warming is affecting our weather, and the conversation post-Sandy reflects that. After a presidential campaign in which the words “climate change” were scarcely uttered, President Obama even made the issue a focus in his first press conference after his re-election.
  4. Ocean Health Index. An international team of scientists evaluated 161 locations around the world’s ocean on the basis of ten criteria, the boiled it all down to an average rating of 60 out of 100 points – the Ocean Health Index. One of the index’s creators has called the endeavor “audacious but necessary.”
  5. Microbial world comes into focus. You may have heard that there are more bacterial cells than human ones on and in your body. Well, this year scientists put names to many of those little critters when they released a preliminary inventory of the so-called human microbiome. Scientific American offers an interactive way to explore the world within (you). Exploration of the microbes living in and beneath the ocean also got a major funding boost this year, so look for that to crop up in future years’ highlights.
  6. Disaster follow-up continues. We made it through this year without a new environmental disaster on the scale of either the Gulf Oil Spill or the Fukushima nuclear crisis. But the science is ongoing in both cases. WHOI scientists reported on the impacts of radioactive run-off on Japanese fisheries 18 months later. And scientists who were involved in estimating the magnitude of the Gulf oil spill made headlines again this year when BP subpoena’d their emails as part of the lawsuits facing the petroleum giant.
  7. Nitrogen footprint steps on marshes. We here on the Cape and islands are familiar with many of the detrimental impacts of nitrogen pollution from fertilizer or sewage run-off – algal blooms, fish kills. But a 9-year study led by MBL’s Linda Deegan revealed that nitrogen loading can contribute to the structural disintegration of salt marshes - an unexpected and very significant finding. Meanwhile, a report from Woods Hole Research Center reviews the global impacts of nitrogen pollution.
  8. Forests make it onto the map. The loss of forests is a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions globally, estimated at somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of total emissions. But, until this year, we didn’t even have a detailed map of U.S. forest biomass. You can explore the map here.
  9. Encyclopedia of Life hits one million. The ultimate goal of the Encyclopedia of Life is to give every species on Earth it’s own web page. That’s still a long way off, cut the project passed the million-page milestone. Certainly worth a nod.