Aug 23, 2018

Axios Science

Situational awareness: Hurricane Lane is pelting the Hawaiian Islands with potentially devastating amounts of rain, pounding surf and high winds. The storm is forecast to move very close to (possibly making landfall on) Maui, Oahu and Kauai through Saturday. Rainfall totals on the Big Island are approaching 2 feet, with severe flooding underway.

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1 big thing: Sea level rise affects home values
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Data: First Street Foundation; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Sea level rise may seem like a far-off threat, but a growing number of new studies, including one out Thursday, shows that real estate markets have already started responding to increased flooding risks by reducing prices of vulnerable homes.

The bottom line: According to a new report by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, housing values in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut dropped $6.7 billion from 2005 to 2017 due to flooding related to sea level rise. Combined with their prior analysis of 5 southeastern coastal states with $7.4 billion in lost home value, the total loss in 8 states since 2005 has been $14.1 billion.

What they did: First Street's Steven A. McAlpine and Columbia University's Jeremy R. Porter analyzed more than 9.2 million real estate transactions, encompassing about 20 million properties in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

First Street also released a new tool called Flood iQ, which allows people to look up individual properties to see how their values are influenced by flooding. Hotspots for flooding and lost value emerge, including neighborhoods in Charleston, S.C., parts of New Jersey and the Norfolk area, where the main access road to the largest naval base in the world has been seeing frequent tidal flooding.

  • “The water is coming up on the streets on a very regular basis [in Norfolk]," McAlpine says. “These homeowners are extremely exposed to it now."
  • "We can harden cities and allow them to thrive on the coast,” he adds. But, if we don't take sea level rise and tidal flooding into account, "the problem is only going to get worse.”

Andrea Dutton, climate scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was not part of this study, says:

"You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not surprised that coastal real estate values are dropping due to not just the threat of future sea level rise, but the impacts that are already being felt."

The big picture: The new report comes as other studies are starting to hone in on the present-day changes in value of vulnerable homes, rather than just projections. For example, research to be published in the Journal of Financial Economics shows that homes exposed to sea level rise already sell for about 7% less than identical homes — with the same number of bedrooms, property and owner type — unexposed to flooding.

Go deeper: Read the rest of the story here.

2. Ebola outbreak in Congo may be slowing
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Data: Ministry of Health DRC; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

While the fourth deadliest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues — and still has the potential to explode domestically and beyond its border — there may be signs of a slowdown, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

What's new: Today, the DRC Ministry of Health announced 9 people have been cured. As of Aug. 22, the total number of suspected cases topped 100, but only 13 people were being investigated. However, experts warn that it is too early to say if the outbreak has reached its peak.

"We're not out of the woods yet. ... You'll know when an outbreak has peaked when any new cases can be traced back to someone you already knew was infected."
— Julie E. Fischer, director, Elizabeth R. Griffin Program, Georgetown University Medical Center

The problem with this particular outbreak, Fischer says, is the difficulty health care workers have in reaching possibly infected people in conflict areas. And, this is compounded by DRC's wide range of languages and cultural differences, leading to demand for multilingual medical workers who can negotiate the different local customs.

Go deeper: Read Eileen's full story here.

3. New era in Arctic shipping: Northern Sea Route

A Danish cargo container vessel is about to set out on a voyage that will be a milestone in the opening of Arctic waters to marine shipping — and it's a direct result of climate change.

Why it matters: The Arctic has been warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and sea ice has declined sharply since 1979. As the ice melts, Arctic shipping routes are becoming more attractive as an alternative to sailing through the Suez Canal.

The details: Danish shipping giant Maersk will send the first cargo container vessel unaided through the Arctic's Northern Sea Route, departing from Vladivostok this week and passing the Bering Strait on Sept. 1.

  • The ship, known as the Venta Maersk, will move across the top of Russia from east to west and should arrive in St. Petersburg by the end of September.
  • This route used to require the help of nuclear-powered icebreakers, and was not economically attractive for cargo shipping companies.

Maersk is sending the Venta at a time when Arctic sea ice is nearing its seasonal minimum, and is more fractured than it is during the winter.

  • During the period from 1979 to 2017, sea ice has declined by about 33,200 square miles per year, or 13.2% per decade compared to the 1981–2010 average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

According to Maersk, the new Venta Maersk ship will make this voyage as a "trial passage." The Venta Maersk is a new, ice-hardened vessel that can sail through sea ice floes that are up to about 1 meter thick. The approximately 3,600 containers on this specific run will contain frozen fish.

Read more of the story here.

4. Axios stories worth your time
Hurricane Lane as viewed from the International Space Station on Aug. 22, 2018. Photo: Ricky Arnold/NASA.

Cervical cancer screening: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued its latest recommendations for cervical cancer screening, which now say women 30 and older can drop the traditional Pap tests every 3 years in favor of testing for human papillomavirus (HPV) every 5 years, Eileen writes.

EPA regulations: The newly proposed EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants could cause a significant increase in public health hazards, including up to 1,400 more premature deaths per year than under the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, Haley Britzky reports.

Public opinion on animal testing: The use of animals in scientific research remains a controversial issue between scientists, activists and often politicians, a new Pew poll reveals, Lauren Meier writes.

Immunotherapy advances: A biomarker test under development has shown a higher success rate than currently available tests at determining which patients with metastatic melanoma might respond to checkpoint inhibitors, Eileen reports.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Space rhetoric: Vice President Mike Pence consistently invokes biblical references when talking about space exploration, The Atlantic's Marina Koren writes. "When Pence speaks of space exploration, he speaks not only of the frontier, but of faith. His speeches sometimes sound more like sermons."

NASA meets reality TV: NASA has built a "Shark Tank" type competition to identify cutting edge inventions to benefit the agency's work, writes Wired's Sarah Scoles, reporting from the iTech competition.

Vaccines and Russian bots: Among the many topics that Russia sought to sow divisions on leading up to the 2016 election was vaccines, according to STAT's Helen Branswell.

Microdosing moves closer to mainstream: Microdosing, which involves taking about 1/10th the dose of a psychedelic drug, is increasingly moving from Reddit forums into medical labs, and may gain acceptance to treat certain mental disorders, STAT's Sharon Begley reports.

6. Something wondrous
A bat is first shown hawking a palatable scarab beetle (Callistethus marginatus) in flight, which it subsequently ingests. The second interaction is of a bat capturing, then dropping a firefly (Photinus pyralis). Finally, after several subsequent firefly interactions, a bat is shown approaching and avoiding another firefly. Credit: Barber Lab, Boise State University.

Fireflies' glow may have evolved as a way to deter their main predator from devouring them, according to a new study.

What's new: The finding goes against conventional wisdom, which holds that fireflies' bioluminescence is for attracting a mate. It also shows how bats rely on multiple senses to hunt for prey, and avoid eating noxious meals, rather than simply using echolocation.

How they did it: Researchers from Boise State University, the University of Florida and Purdue University pit fireflies against big brown bats in a dark flight room for 1 to 4 days. They used high-speed photography to record interactions between the insects, which are a type of beetle, and the bats.

They found that toxic, bioluminescent fireflies transmit multi-sensory warning signals to echolocating bats, in an effort to warn them off.

  • After taking initial nibbles and then spitting out the fireflies, the bats seemed to learn over time not to try to eat the insects.
  • This also occurred with fireflies that did not light up at the time, though some of them were eaten. In these cases, the researchers hypothesized, the bats were relying on one sense to discriminate between meals, including fireflies' flight patterns.
"We found that bats can learn to avoid fireflies when using sonar or vision, but learn almost twice as fast and more completely when using both — providing fundamental evidence that combining information across senses can increase the power of warning signals."
— Jesse Barber, Boise State University

It's believed that 65 million years ago, fireflies may have relied on pheromones instead of light signals to attract mates and mostly flew during the day. As fireflies shifted to being nocturnal, this study says, they may have faced "heavy selective pressure" from bats and developed their ability to light up.

"For fireflies on the wing in the night sky, the predators to avoid have been, and continue to be, bats. We predict that future evolutionary work will reveal that bioluminescence in beetles emerged with bats and that, indeed, bats may have invented fireflies," Barber says.

What they're saying: While praising the study in general, Nick Dowdy, a postdoctoral fellow at the Milwaukee Public Museum who was not involved in this research, says he questions the conclusion that bats may have driven bioluminescence in fireflies as there "isn't enough data." He adds:

"That might be true, but we have just as much if not more data suggesting that ancestral fireflies shifted to nocturnal activity and evolved bioluminescent signaling as an effective means of locating mates in the dark."

Thanks for reading, see you all next Thursday!