Killer Grizzlies, “Ice Twisters”, and more…Science, nature, and other news of the week. Click on each headline for the story itself.
Grizzly Bear Scourge Killing Thousands of American Children — With all the testimony this week of potential Trump Cabinet members, the most insightful, meaningful words of wisdom came from Betsy Devos, the woman who (shockingly) is about to lead the Department of Education. When asked about her stance on guns in schools, Devos first deflected, stating that it should be a local choice. When pushed, Devos spoke of the one issue that wasn’t discussed NEARLY enough during the fall campaign…the deadly scourge of Grizzly Bear attacks on our children at school. Yes, that’s right folks, FINALLY we have a Trump Cabinet member who “gets it”, who understands the daily struggles of everyday Americans. Who hasn’t worried about Grizzly Bear attacks when dropping off their child at school in the morning? Betsy, we love you. You’ve proven you are one of US, everyday Americans struggling with everyday, life-or-death problems. Hopefully under your watch, teachers, or…better yet…children THEMSELVES will be allowed to carry semi-automatic weapons to combat the Grizzly Bear scourge. God bless you, Betsy Devos!
Cat toll on wildlife tallied – We had a neighbor with a cat that started showing up on their front step. They adopted it, although for the much of the time, they kept it as an outdoor cat. Every night it would be out on its own, and often during the day as well. It was a sweet cat! It was also an evil, bird-killing machine that was seemingly always in our yard. There would be many, many times I’d look out our sun room at the bird feeders, only to see the cat crouched and hiding by a nearby bush. Over the years, the visits to our yard became less frequent, either because 1) it was scared to death of me chasing it out of the yard again, or 2) it progressively got fatter and less agile. He took a toll on birds in my yard. I often witnessed him killing a bird, and other times, I’d just find the aftermath, with a pile of feathers or a dead mangled body. One cat, one yard, and likely many dozens upon dozens of kills. So what is the toll of cats on wildlife? As this story notes, a wildlife rehab group in Virginia tallied cat-related animal injuries over the years, and found they treated over 80 species that had been attacked by cats, including over 60 different bird species. This past summer, the neighbor cat disappeared one day, as it didn’t return home after (yet another) night left outside on its own. I love what pets bring into a home, but admit I was NOT fond of the way the neighbor cat was treated, and what it was allowed to do. Leaving it outside all the time ended up costing it its life, but it also ended up costing the lives of countless small critters over the years.
Ice Twisters!! — Several weeks ago, my son and I were flipping through the channels, and as we passed the SyFy channel, we saw a movie called “Ice Twisters!” was on. Typical SyFy movie…government research gone wrong, with drone-related atmospheric research somehow resulting in deadly “Ice Twisters” that were ravaging the landscape. In the movie, the cause of death for those impacted by an Ice Twister wasn’t necessarily wind…no…they froze to death! Yes, twisters that were THAT cold! Well, it turns out there’s a hint (the slightest hint) of truth in the show. The story goes back to 1955, when three employees from a radio station in Nebraska were taking cover from a tornado in the basement of an old stone house. The vortex passed directly overhead, and as it did so, the structure above was blown away. The three people in the basement noted the difficulty in breathing as the tornado passed overhead, but also felt the temperature dropping very sharply. Researchers studying the case found that the temperature likely dropped from around 27° Celsius to 12° as the funnel went overhead. The drop in temperature and the difficulty they had in breathing were related. The density of the air in the funnel would have been equivalent to being at nearly 30,000 feet in elevation, and as warmer, denser air is sucked into low pressure of the funnel, the expansion causes the large drop in temperature. Touche’, SyFy, Touche’. Never again will I make fun of your (admittedly sometimes entertaining) movies. Ice Twisters was simply a movie ahead of its time, ahead of the science behind it.
Move over “Polar Vortex”! Now we have “Atmospheric Rivers” — I just love when the mainstream media gets excited and jumps all over a “new” scientific phenomenon. A few years ago, somebody put a label of “Polar Vortex” on the same kinds of cold snaps the U.S. has always experienced, evidently deciding that just calling it “winter” as we always have wasn’t exciting enough. Today, I see we have a new entry in the journalistic annals of creating new and exciting ways to describe phenomena that have been around forever. A very significant precipitation event did just recently occur in California, but the same kind of event has occurred countless times throughout history. The term “Atmospheric Rivers” itself is evidently old, mentioned by a couple of researchers back in the 1990s. Other terms for it in California have been the “Pineapple Express” or “Hawaiian Express”. Reading this story, however, and you’d think it was the first time such a phenomenon had been discovered or discussed.
3rd straight year of record global temperatures — For the first time ever, we’ve now had three straight years where all-time global temperature records have been broken. As stated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ““What’s going on in the Arctic is really very impressive; this year was ridiculously off the chart”. Parts of the Arctic were 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal for much of the fall and early winter, including days with temperatures hovering at or above freezing even at the North Pole. Globally, levels of sea ice have never been lower. Irrefutable evidence of the continued onslaught of climate change…not that more evidence is needed at this stage, but it comes at a time when a new incoming President and his Party are about to take power in Washington D.C. Which leads into…
Mixed bag for Trump’s Cabinet on Climate Change — Not a single story, but a collection of stories related to confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet members this week. First the good…incoming Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, openly disagreed with Trump’s statements on climate change. He stated “The climate is changing, and man is an influence”, certainly welcome words from a man tasked to manage the Department that oversees Federal lands and natural resources. Responses related to the issue of climate change were more reserved and mixed from other Trump nominees. Scott Pruitt, tasked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency said “I do not believe climate change is a hoax”, but he stopped short of saying man was the major cause, or that we need regulation and change to mitigate the effects. Given that EPA is the Federal Agency that can potentially regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not comforting to see a lack of conviction about regulatory action. The aforementioned Betsy Devos, who could very well be in charge of the Department of Education (GOD I hope not), didn’t specifically comment on climate change in her confirmation hearing, but did offer a simple statement of “I support the teaching of great science“. Note the word “simple”, a statement that could be attributed to MUCH of her testimony this week. It’s not encouraging when the Secretary of Education is clearly not even aware of the many programs her agency is responsible for. Rex Tillerson, an oilman slated to become Secretary of State, did state that the climate is changing and that greenhouse gases are a cause. However, he also stated that the science was murky, saying “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” Tillerson’s comments were perhaps the most representative of what’s likely to happen in a Trump administration. In the face of overwhelming evidence that’s slowly convincing even a scientifically illiterate American public, the stance of many Cabinet members was to recognize climate change as “real”, yet simultaneously state the science is very uncertain. In short, they’re setting the stage to potentially monitor the situation, but not do a damn thing about it.
Sit on your butt and watch your life drain away — That’s the basic message of new research that assessed the biologic “age” of cells, related to the level of physical activity. Telomeres, little caps on the ends of DNA strands within a cell, gradually shorten as a person ages. Telomeres protect your chromosomes, and a shortening of telomeres is associated with cell “aging”, and increased likelihood of diseases including diabetes and cancer. Interesting study, and one of the first to take this form of measurement and connect it with activity levels. That’s the price of blogging, I guess…sitting here for hours trying to come up with interesting and clever stories, all while my damned telomeres shorten by the second.
Don’t eat, live longer — To riff off of Charlton Heston…Damn you, science. DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!! FIRST you have the story above about deadly Ice Twisters, amplifying my already well-ingrained fear of tornadoes. Then you have the story of your DNA rotting away while you sit still. And now, this story, noting that restricting calories is one way to ensure a longer life. Survival and health of rhesus monkeys was found to be significantly higher as caloric consumption was reduced. Great. What. The. Hell. My favorite pastime is lounging on the couch in the basement, hiding from tornadoes, eating a bowl of ice cream. Little did I know how much I was putting my life in danger. As a scientist, and as an avowed atheist, I do find it incredibly fascinating that so many things that human beings crave in life, are inherently bad for you. Eating fatty and sugary foods, relaxing and taking it easy. From an evolutionary and biologic standpoint, does that make sense? Does it make sense that the very things we crave can kill us? How does simple biology explain that? It’s times like this where my belief in a “god” may not be reinforced, but it does reinforce my belief in a “devil”.
10,000-km long “wave” on Venus — The Akatsuki spacecraft captured a spectacular image of Venus in December, marked by a massive, vertical “smile” that stretched nearly pole-to-pole. The 10,000-km long feature is thought to be a “gravity wave”, which would make it the largest gravity wave observed in the solar system. It’s thought to have developed from air movement over mountain ranges on the surface of Venus, with the feature then propagating higher into the thick Venetian atmosphere. However, such a feature isn’t easily explained by the current understanding of the surface of Venus and near-surface atmospheric conditions. Either some other explanation is in order, or our understanding of the surface/atmospheric interactions on Venus needs to be reevaluated.