A science news preview of 2013

image captionComet Ison is likely to light up the skies in 2013

David Shukman, science editor, BBC News

As the Philippines, New Jersey and Britain count the cost of ferocious flooding, expect another year in which extreme weather exacts a human toll. Partly this is because more and more of us live in harm's way on coasts and flood plains. But is climate change adding to the danger? Intense research next year will try to find out.

One possible factor is the warming Arctic having less ice could be altering the flow of the jetstream that governs where storms go. So all eyes will be on the state of the sea-ice next summer to see if the melt breaks 2012's record thaw.

The next major assessment of climate questions is due when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases a report in September. The science has moved on since its last report in 2007 - but so has criticism of the way the IPCC works. A draft, leaked online, revealed how the scientists want to toughen up the language blaming human activity for global warming. But battles over revisions - and over the conclusions - lie ahead.

Meanwhile new industrial revolutions are in prospect as global investment ramps up in emerging sciences. Research into novel materials, synthetic biology and regenerative medicine are among the fields that will no doubt produce fascinating but controversial advances.

Finally, in this season of goodwill, spare a thought for Sesame, the synchrotron light source being built in Jordan by Arabs, Turks, Iranians and Israelis. Science has opened doors that diplomacy has failed to and Sesame is an oasis of harmony in a region of conflict. But each year brings some new threat to its survival.

Matt McGrath, environment correspondent, BBC News website

One of the most controversial issues of 2013 is likely to be the resumption of the government's cull of badgers that was postponed last October. With ministers determined to act and opponents determined to derail their plans, there is likely to be another series of bruising political and scientific arguments well into the summer.

The battle over badgers is not the only dormant issue likely to spring back to life. We're also expecting to get a clearer picture of the extent of ash dieback disease across the UK in the coming months. Ministers have signalled it is unlikely to be good news.

Energy is shaping up to have a big impact on the environment in 2013. In the UK, the government has given the go-ahead for Cuadrilla to resume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at a number of test wells in Lancashire. Other companies with shale gas licences will be watching events closely.

In the US, President Obama is expected to make a final decision on the hotly debated Keystone XL pipeline that was originally intended to bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta across the border and all the way down to refineries in Texas. Some analysts believe the decision could set the tone for the president's approach to climate and energy over the next four years.

And there are likely to be some tough battles at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) taking place in Thailand. Among the contentious measures will be a call from some campaigners to completely ban the trade in polar bear parts. Other activists argue that climate change is the bear's real enemy and are refusing to go along with calls for a ban on trade.

Mark Kinver, environment reporter, BBC News website

The in-tray for the ministerial team at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) appears to be overflowing, even before the new year arrives with the sound of Big Ben chiming in the start of 2013.

The next 12 months will see ministers deal with a number of high profile policies, including badger cull trials, tree bio-security, responding to the Independent Panel on Forestry's report, reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and the continuing development of the flagship Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP).

Each one of these is a potential snake-pit for the department's ministers, and the coalition government as whole. The pledge to be the greenest government ever could prove to be a venomous soundbite if ministers fall short of expectations or fail to deliver.

In January, ministers are set to publish the government's response to the Independent Panel on Forestry's report, which was published in July 2012.

The panel concluded that England's publicly owned forest estate was a national asset and should not be sold off.

The panel itself was set up in March 2011 following a ministerial U-turn on plans to sell off a chunk of its woodlands, after more than half-a-million people signed an online petition to protest against the policy.

Although the government has said it accepted the panel's recommendation and would halt plans to sell off state-owned forests, campaigners are not convinced and will be watching developments very closely.

The arrival of ash dieback in the UK's natural environment grabbed the headlines in the autumn, prompting Environment Secretary Owen Paterson to set up a series of emergency meetings looking at what could be done or what needed to be done.

But the issue goes much wider than just one fungal threat, albeit a potentially disastrous one for millions of trees. There is a growing number of pests and pathogens that threaten the wellbeing of our woodlands, and there are many more yet to arrive on our shores waiting to exacerbate the problem.

In October 2011, Defra launched a tree bio-security plan amid concerns of the mounting risks facing our trees. This was tested and updated during the height of the ash dieback crisis. Expect to see this issue feature prominently in the coming 12 months, especially once we head into spring when the trees starting coming into leaf and flower.

Finally, the above shows that even the best laid plans in a time of squeezed departmental budgets can send people back to the drawing board.

Mr Paterson, speaking during the ash dieback crisis, said: "There will be some things we do in Defra now that we are going to have to stop doing."

So can we expect to see structural changes to a number of government agencies? For example, the merging of the Environment Agency and Natural England during 2013?

Pallab Ghosh, science correspondent, BBC News

The discovery of the Higgs boson in July 2012 is the beginning of what's likely to be an amazing journey into a new realm of physics. The current theory of physics called the Standard Model has been amazingly successful in explaining how sub-atomic particles and many of the forces of nature behave.

But it does not explain gravity, nor does it give any insight into why the expansion of the Universe is accelerating as a result of a phenomenon called dark energy.

The stage is set for a new, more complete theory of physics that will cause a shift in thinking of how the Universe works on a par with Einstein's theories of relativity. The first steps toward that new theory may be taken in 2014 as researchers working on the various experiments at the Large Hadron Collider pore through their data to see if they have discovered any new particles.

The first opportunity for such results to be presented will be at La Thuile, a high energy physics conference in early march held at a ski resort in the Italian Alps.

Jason Palmer, science and technology reporter, BBC News

In mid-February we will get another reminder we live in a (potentially) violent cosmos - asteroid 2012 DA14 will make a harmless but attention-grabbing pass near the Earth, at a distance just a tenth that of the Moon. Exactly what happens then will determine how near the asteroid's next pass will be, in 2026. (Don't worry, signs are pretty good so far.) Late in the year, a comet called Ison might make a dramatic appearance in the night skies, brighter than the full moon - if it doesn't burn up as it gets nearer.

Scientists will continue the hunt for a great majority of the Universe's mass - mass that we know is there but which cannot be seen, hence its moniker "dark matter". In early 2013, Lux, a new experiment deep within in an abandoned gold mine in the US state of South Dakota, will join a half dozen similar experiments worldwide in a hunt to detect the stuff directly - what could be the greatest find of our time.

Late in the year, India is due to launch its first Mars mission, Mangalyaan, and the Chinese craft Chang'e 3 is scheduled to land on the Moon - milestones that should make for compelling demonstrations of those nations' space ambitions.

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