Aug 31, 2017

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Welcome back. Our thoughts continue to be with everyone in Houston and along the Gulf Coast. We'll look at some of the long-term risks Harvey presents and other historic floods in the U.S. over the last 30 years.

Please let me know what you think about what you're reading here and in the science stream. You can email me at or just hit reply to this newsletter.

Harvey's looming health risks

In an Expert Voices post today, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, lays out the health risks for the Gulf's residents post-Harvey:

As evacuations in Houston progress and people here move into shelters, a number of health problems are likely to surface, especially from infectious and tropical diseases. That may affect the entire Gulf Coast region.

Why it matters: Even before Harvey, we identified the Gulf Coast as America's "soft underbelly" of disease due to a confluence of extreme poverty, urbanization, population shifts, subtropical climate and climate change. The vulnerability is especially evident following tropical storms and hurricanes.

Read more from Hotez here.

A 30-year look at major floods in the U.S.

Axios' Lazaro Gamio takes a historical look at floods: The flooding in Houston brought on by Harvey has proved to be catastrophic, but the region is no stranger to flooding. Here's a deep look at where major flooding events have occurred in the U.S. since 1985 using data from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory. Each shape represents the extent of a region affected by flooding, and is colored by the severity of the flooding. The map doesn't yet include the extent of the flooding caused by Harvey because it is still being measured.

Why it matters: Climate scientists say extreme flooding events will become more common as the climate warms because storms will dump more rain and the sea levels will rise (already 2.6 inches globally between 1993 and 2014, per NOAA).

Axios stories to spark your brain
  • Deportation's impact: Jeff Nesbit on a new study describing the mental health impacts of mothers' immigration status on their children, based on the association of anxiety disorder diagnoses with DACA eligibility.
  • Go deeper: Navy-funded research found sonar use is altering the behavior of whales, reports Erin Ross.
  • Waiting for a star to fall: After searching for decades, astronomer Michael Shara has found the star he's been looking for — and evidence for an idea he put forth in 1986. "I was delighted and pained by it," he told me of the recent discovery in images of the sky he'd taken in the 80s and 90s.
  • Exoplanet news: Stef Kight on Hubble researchers' announcement today that the TRAPPIST-1 star system could be home to water although there is no direct evidence.
1 fun thing

When the Cassini spacecraft intentionally hurls itself into Saturn on Sept. 15, it will have spent one month shy of 20 years in space. The probe recently discovered hydrogen plumes that could be an energy source for microbes and has given us stunning images of Saturn's moons and iconic rings. Its forthcoming demise has inspired a melancholic Twitter bot, naturally.

What we're reading elsewhere
Something wondrous

From Erin Ross' notebook: The Cuvier's beaked whale is the undisputed champion of the long, deep dive. In a study released this week, Erin Falcone and her team recorded a record-shattering dive — one whale held its breath for an astounding two hours and 43 minutes.

"When I first saw the data, I thought 'Is there any limit to what this animal can do?'" Falcone tells Axios.

How they do it: The whales have a number of adaptations to help them hunt beneath the waves. Unlike humans, they can almost empty and refill their entire lungs in a single breath. When humans breathe, oxygen is taken from our lungs via a protein called hemoglobin in our blood. Whales have hemoglobin, too — but they have a lot more of it. Both humans and whales also have myoglobin, another oxygen-storing protein, in their muscles. Cuvier's beaked whales have more myoglobin than most diving mammals and far more than humans.

The whales have other ways to conserve oxygen: on deep dives, they temporarily shut down their liver and kidneys and pull blood from their extremities. Their ribs collapse and fold, which helps remove air pockets and makes it easier for them to dive. The whales don't need to swim to reach those depths. They just hold their breath and sink into the black.

Alison Snyder