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March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.

Oscar

One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).

Europa

Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.

 

In The News – Week of November 27th

Yeah, it’s been several days. Holidays, general malaise, busy at work, yada yada yada.  There have been a number of very interesting science/nature/life stories that have come out in recent days however.

Homer, Alaska area

People have a tendency to ignore an issue, until it affects them personally. If you live in a coastal area, or in a place like Alaska (this is near Homer) where the effects of climate change are already having a big impact, then politics-be-damned, people tend to be “believers”. In no case is that more obvious than when someone’s financial interests are threatened, as in the New York Times piece about coastal real estate.

Climate Change, Coastal Real Estate, and Politics — We’ve got a new administration transitioning in who seems hell-bent on ignoring reality, ignoring science.  As a scientist who studies linkages between the landscape and climate change, of course it’s the climate change denial that is the most disgusting to me.  This is a great piece from the New York Times that focuses on the intersection of climate change, coastal real estate, and rising sea levels. People are funny…they tend not to care about an issue until it affects them personally (for another example, see Obamacare and the need for health insurance).  On the climate change side, there’s no doubt that those in coastal zones, those with a vested financial interest in coastal real estate, are taking the issue of climate change seriously. The story certainly highlights the folly of those that do try to wish away climate change or delay long-term action in favor of short-term financial gain.

Melting begetting more melting — Staying with the climate change thread, a story about feedbacks in the climate system in the Arctic, with warming temperatures causing land and water surface changes that reinforce additional warming.  This fall has certainly been an incredible and unprecedented in Arctic, with sea ice levels actually declining during a period the winter freeze is typically in full force. Temperatures have been incredibly high, in some cases nearly 40 degrees above average, with temperatures even staying near or at the freezing point at the North Pole itself.  A “standard” prediction that you see is that the Arctic is likely to be ice-free in summer by 2050, but many scientists are moving that prediction up to a far earlier date.  Part of the problem is that once melting begins, it feeds back on itself.  You’re removing bright white snow and ice, and exposing more open water and older, darker sea ice, which absorbs much more solar radiation and reinforces the warming. Throw in additional feedback loops such as the impacts of melting permafrost and resultant methane releases in to the atmosphere, and it’s a runaway train that’s going to be impossible to stop.

White-throated Sparrow

Having trouble finding your one true love? It could be worse? At least you can potentially couple with 50% of your species. For a bird like this, a “white-striped” variant of the White-throated Sparrow, only 25% of your species’ population is of any interest to you…specifically, you need a tan-striped variant of the opposite sex.

Male? Female? This sparrow has 4 different sexes — When I took up birding and photography back in 2000, it didn’t take me very long to become familiar with the birds that are found in South Dakota.  A (healthy?) obsession in a topic really facilitates some fast learning!  However, there were some species I struggled with initially, particularly those that could have multiple different plumage patterns.  White-throated Sparrows fall into that camp, with some birds having brilliantly white stripes on their heads, and others having tan stripes.  Researchers have found that the plumage patterns go well beyond just appearance, with the two color morphs displaying very different behavior and reproductive traits. Just as X and Y chromosomes drive male and female sex distinctions, they found that White-throated Sparrows have developed another pair of “sex chromosomes”.  In a “normal” reproductive system, an individual can mate with 50% of its species (males and females mating); White-throated Sparrows can only mate with 25% of other individuals of its species.  For example, if you’re a male “white-striped” color variant of the White-throated Sparrow, you will only mate with a female “tan-striped” color variant…one-fourth of the entire species population (assuming white- and tan-color morphs are equally common).  A fascinating read about evolution and the unexpected paths that it sometimes takes.

San Francisco sinking — Ah, the wonders of satellite observation. From a scientific standpoint, there are so many possibilities in what phenomena can be observed, and what scientists can do with that information.  This story focuses on the Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites, and the use of multiple space-based radar observations to assess changes in surface height.  The 58-story Millennium Tower in San Francisco, for example, has been found to be sinking 40 millimeters (about 1 1/2 inches) every year. The “Millennium” Tower would thus theoretically be ~125 feet lower than where it is right now in a millennium, if sinking continued and the tower could survive!   Land surface subsidence due to ground water pumping, changes in forest canopies due to cutting, elevation shifts after major earthquakes…all fascinating observations that can also be made with similar satellite observations.

Rub Al Khali

Imagine if this environment were…lush! Crocodiles! Hippos! Lakes with fish, and thriving cities! That’s what you would have found in the Sahara 6,000 years ago. Disclosure…this is actually the Rub’ al Khali desert on the border of Saudi Arabia and the UAE! Never have been to the Sahara, have been here and have photos!

Lush environment of the Sahara — Scientists have long known that the region of the Sahara Desert in Africa used to be much wetter.  Archaeological finds have detailed thriving civilizations in the heart of the Sahara, and bones found in the region showed that hippos, fish, and crocodiles were once quite common.  5,000 to 6,000 years ago, a mere blink of the eye in geologic time, the Sahara was a much wetter environment, and scientists aren’t exactly sure what climate mechanism caused the shift to the extremely dry climates that are found there today.  The tropical “rain belt” that provides moisture to many equatorial regions was shifted much further north during that time, but the reasons are unclear.

Life on…Pluto!?!?? — Scientists pretty much all agree that it’s only a matter of time before we find life on another planet.  We’ve already detected many intriguing hints that life was likely once found on Mars (or even could be found there today).  Over the last 10 years though, the list of planets and moons with potential life has risen dramatically, not only with our first confirmation of potentially suitable planets being identified outside of our own solar system, but even within our own solar system.  Pluto would have been about dead last on the list of potential candidates, before the 2015 flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft.  It’s incredibly cold and distant from the sun, and was thought to be a barren, cold world.  Instead, New Horizons provided strong evidence of a massive subsurface “ocean” on Pluto.  As this story notes, that ocean is likely an incredibly harsh environment, still cold and packed with ammonia.  However, as we’ve found on earth, life can thrive in the most inhospitable environments, and any environment with water and organic compounds such as ammonia is a potential breeding ground for life.

Enceladus

Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that just may harbor life. Beneath the cracked, icy crust of the small moon lies a liquid water ocean, thanks to the gravity and strong tidal forces exerted by Saturn. Spacecraft observations found geysers spouting water into the thin atmosphere, providing further proof of the subsurface ocean that just might be a place to look for life.

Six most likely places to find life in the Solar System — Related to the Pluto story…where else in the solar system might we find life?  This piece highlights six potential candidates.  Enceladus is a small moon of Saturn where the Cassini spacecraft detected geysers spouting ice and water into the atmosphere from cracks in the moon’s surface.  Strong tidal forces from Saturn likely keep a subsurface ocean liquid, and where’s there’s liquid water, life is a possibility.  Titan, another moon of Saturn, is extremely cold, but has liquid lakes of methane and ethane on its surface, organic compounds that could harbor life.  Europa, a moon of Jupiter, likely has much more water in subsurface oceans than the earth has in its oceans.  That water lies below a 10-mile thick crust of ice, but with the discovery of “black smokers” on earth, it’s been shown that light and photosynthesis isn’t necessarily needed as an ingredient for life.  A subsurface ocean with similar heat sources could easily support life.  Mars, and even the atmosphere of Venus, are also discussed as potential reservoirs of life in the solar system.

Einstein wrong? — Einstein’s theory of relativity depends on the assumption of the speed of light being a constant, no matter the situation.  Scientists are now assessing the possibility that the speed of light may not be a constant, that it was once much higher in the early universe.  Such a finding would cause major upheaval in the world of physics. Science never ceases to surprise, and this story is a great example of why we need to keep challenging even our most cherished and “known” scientific beliefs.

Gatlinburg fires the “new normal” — The tragic fires in and around Gatlinburg were something of a surprise, given that massive, destructive fires just aren’t all that common in the southeastern U.S.  That may be changing, thanks to climate change, drought, and increased climate variability.  The southeastern U.S. is a pretty moist location, but major droughts can occur there.  Climate change may be increasing extreme events, including drought, and may make larger fires a much more common occurrence in the southeast.  Note the story also has a number of quotes from Mark Svoboda, a friend of mine who now leads the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Four new element names on the periodic table! — We’ve known about elements 113, 115, 117, and 118, but as newly discovered elements over the last few years, they hadn’t been assigned new names. The new names are  nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og).  Don’t expect to find a chunk of “Moscovium” or any of the others while out taking a hike.  All were discovered through the use of particle accelerators, and all are extremely unstable, decaying to more basic elements within a miniscule fraction of a second after they are created.

 

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