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Climate scientists Sarah Das (L) and Ian Joughin look out on a meltwater lake on the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2013. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The magnitude of recent Greenland Ice Sheet melting is "exceptional" compared to the historical records for the past 350 years, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the U.S. and the Netherlands.
Background: When it comes to Greenland and sea-level rise, the basics are well known — air temperatures are rising, causing ice to melt from above. The water percolates down through the ice, and eventually flows into the ocean, where it adds to sea level. At the same time, glaciers are accelerating their flow into the sea as warming ocean temperatures eat away at them from below.
Yes, but: The big question is — to what extent is the level of summer surface melting unusual?
Why it matters: Refining the dynamics of sea-level rise would help scientists to predict how much damage to expect in coastal regions of the world. It would also help them determine what to anticipate from a slowdown in a crucial ocean current that draws heat north from the equator, changing ecosystems and weather patterns.
What they did: The researchers collected and analyzed ice cores from Central West Greenland and a coastal location on the Nuussuaq Peninsula in 2015.
What they found: In recent decades, there was a clear departure toward more melting, water percolation through the ice, and refreezing each winter.
The study concludes that as ice melts, the surface darkens, absorbing more heat and melting more ice. While this process has long been known, the new study underscores its significance, since it means the surface of the ice sheet can be extremely sensitive to seemingly small upticks in summer air temperatures.
"As a result, Greenland is more sensitive to temperature change today than just a few decades ago. Warming matters more than ever."— Luke Trusel, study lead author, said on Twitter
The bottom line: "This is a climate record you can easily put alongside a history book — clearly seeing [the] humans fingerprint on the Greenland Ice Sheet," Robin Bell, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, tells Axios. Bell was not involved in the study.
Public health officials have the tools to fight the deadly Ebola outbreak that continues to rampage the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the fight is not going well, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.
The problems: A "perfect storm" of deadly disease combined with civil unrest, violence against health care workers, other diseases like malaria, and some cultural practices have caused this to become the world's second-worst Ebola outbreak on record, according to WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic. It will take dogged persistence to contain it, he tells Axios.
"At the end of the day, we know how to stop Ebola, and there are new tools in terms of vaccines that are almost certainly beneficial and treatments that are likely beneficial. ... [But] fundamentally they can't do what we know needs to be done."— Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology, UC Berkeley
What needs to happen:
"This is against traditional practices of washing the body, guarding it and being present with the body to bring it to the next life," Reingold explains.
When it comes to cutting the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause global warming, the world isn't just failing — we're stepping our foot on the gas pedal, a new report finds.
The big picture: On Wednesday, scientists reported in a series of studies that global emissions of GHGs from fossil fuels are likely to hit record levels in 2018. China and India are responsible for much of that growth. This is erasing optimism from just a few years ago that China's emissions might be peaking.
Details: The emissions are growing by a best estimate of 2.7% compared to 2017, according to the reports by the Global Carbon Project, which studies the carbon cycle and closely tracks emissions worldwide.
The bottom line: China's reliance on coal is a big problem — and it's not going to end anytime soon. "Coal is likely to dominate the Chinese energy system in the next decade, even if the skyrocketing growth seen in the mid-2000s is unlikely to return," said Jan Ivar Korsbakken, senior researcher at Center for International Climate Research in Oslo.
Polio-like illness: The cause of a mysterious and rare polio-like illness that has infected at least 458 children since 2014 is frustrating the CDC, Eileen writes.
Plastics in sea turtles: A new study found that every sea turtle found in several ocean basins contained microplastic pollution in their digestive systems, Michael Sykes reports.
SpaceX: The company re-used a rocket to launch a whopping 64 small satellites at one time, the most ever from a U.S. launch vehicle.
AI: Talent in the field has not been monopolized by Big Tech companies, and may be more dispersed than thought, Kaveh Waddell writes.
15 "damning details": From problems with informed consent to operating in secrecy to ignoring ethical advice, The Atlantic's Ed Yong lays out the issues with a scientist's claim of gene-editing embryos.
Silent epidemic: Viral hepatitis killed 1.4 million people in 2016 — more tuberculosis, HIV or malaria, Ian Graber-Stiehl reports for Nature News. Stigma, vaccination gaps, and lack of screening and access to retroviral drugs are among the challenges in sub-Saharan Africa where the crisis is "flying under the radar."
Security nightmare: Experts call for advances in encryption to keep pace with the development of quantum computers that could conceivably crack conventional encryption algorithms, Martin Giles reports for MIT Technology Review.
Disappearing plastics: We know roughly the amount of plastics that are entering the oceans each year. However, what is happening to plastics once they are in the water and encountering sea life is a big and important mystery, which has given rise to a major citizen science research project, Matthew Halliday writes for Hakai.
The asteroid Bennu as seen from the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
On Dec. 3, the NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx arrived at its destination of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. During the next year, it will orbit the asteroid to search for the best places to land and scoop up samples before eventually returning them to Earth in 2023.
Why it matters: Analyzing Bennu may help scientists learn more about the asteroid's composition, which could lead to new discoveries about how life evolved in the universe.
But there's another reason researchers are interested in the contents of this space rock: They want to learn more about how they might have to, on short notice, divert, deflect or destroy an asteroid that's on a potentially devastating collision course with Earth.
The multi-institution research team has modeled a possible planetary defense mission against Bennu, based on the limited information they had about the small space object, according to Cathy Plesko, a research scientist in applied physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The computer models they used, Plesko tells Axios, gave them a good guess at the shape and composition of the asteroid.
What's next: A basic task for scientists is to determine how uncertain their models are, just in case they're needed to save humanity from an extinction-level asteroid.
However, without a mission-ready spacecraft or plan, if we were to find an object on a collision course with Earth tomorrow, Plesko says, “We’d still be pretty hard-pressed to stop it from happening.”
Thanks for reading, and see you here next Thursday.