Dec 20, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: El Niño is trying to get its act together
Expand chart
Data: NOAA; Map: Harry Stevens/Axios

El Niño, the climate cycle in the tropical Pacific Ocean that can reconfigure weather patterns and boost the planet's global average surface temperature, is steadily building for 2019 — but there is a component of it that is missing in action.

Why it matters: El Niño events can tip the odds in favor of particular weather patterns. But they require unusually warm ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific coupled with changes in the atmosphere — and so far, the atmosphere hasn't shown enough signs of playing along.

  • In the U.S., El Niño winters can make or break a ski season in the West, as they tend to feature a more active jet stream across the southern tier of the country, including the southern Rockies, steering storms that way, with milder than average conditions in the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska.
  • El Niño events can also lead to drought in the western Pacific, including Indonesia.

The global climate connection: Globally, El Niño years tend to be milder overall, giving a natural boost to human-caused global warming, as more heat is pulled out of the tropical Pacific and released into the atmosphere through increased showers and thunderstorms.

"It is effectively a large, and months-long, heating pad under a piece of the atmosphere," says Deke Arndt, head of the climate monitoring division at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.

  • Arndt says a moderate-to-strong El Niño would favor 2019 being a top 3 warmest year globally, since we're already likely to have a top 5 warmest year without it.
  • In general, each El Niño year has been warmer than the last, a sign of long-term global warming.

What's happening: El Niño events are the result of the ocean and atmosphere interacting. The ocean conditions in the tropical Pacific are clearly pointing to an El Niño, with sea surface temperatures exceeding the NOAA threshold of 1°C, or 1.8°F, for such an event.

  • But the atmosphere is not responding to the ocean conditions needed for an El Niño event to happen.
  • Right now, it's as if the ocean is a teenager at a high school dance, asking the atmosphere onto the dance floor, and the latter is playing hard to get, so the ocean is dancing on its own.

"While warmer-than-average surface waters in the equatorial Pacific are an essential element of El Niño, the atmospheric response is just as critical," says Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, via email.

  • Halpert says that, temporarily, the Pacific appears to be dominated by other tropical weather cycles.
  • But he and other forecasters expect the ocean to eventually win over the weather patterns, with at least a 90% chance that a weak to moderate El Niño will develop this winter.
2. Deep ocean evolution findings contain a warning

Artist depiction of what marine life looked like during the Ediacaran period. Credit: Peter Trusler

After about 3 billion years of Earth being dominated by microbes, complex, soft-bodied organisms — up to 3 feet long — emerged in the deep oceans.

Combining evidence from the fossil record with insights from animal physiology, scientists have now put forward a new explanation for why this occurred about 570 million years ago, during a period known as the Ediacaran.

What they did: The researchers studied a species of sea anemones that are similar in their breathing methods to creatures that live in the dark, oxygen-poor deep sea environment where complex organisms also emerged.

  • By measuring how the sea anemone can cope with low levels of oxygen at different temperatures, the researchers from Stanford and Yale universities found the anemones have biological similarities to the deep sea organisms that emerged during the Ediacaran period.
  • They report that both oxygen and temperature are important regulators of where organisms can flourish, and that the thermal optimum for anemones is relatively fickle.
  • The lack of temperature fluctuations in the deep ocean may help explain why complex life first emerged there during the Ediacaran, the study finds.

The big picture: The study suggests aquatic organisms may be quite vulnerable to acidifying and warming waters today, due to global climate change and other factors.

  • Authors Tom Boag and Erik Sperling of Stanford told Axios the study's results make them more concerned about the oceans' fate in a warming world.
"It’s very clear from the fossil record that oxygen is one of the main levers driving animal life in the ocean or the distribution of animals in the ocean, and so as we change oxygen levels in the modern and future ocean, we’re going to expect big changes to where organisms are going to be able to live.”
— Erik Sperling, study co-author
  • Boag specifically warned that warming oceans with lowering amounts of oxygen, like we have today, have been associated with high levels of extinction in the past.

But, but, but: This study puts forward a hypothesis about deep ocean evolution — namely the crucial roles played by oxygen and temperature fluctuations — that needs to be reproduced by additional research before its findings are accepted by the broader scientific community. New fossil evidence or data from physiological studies could go against their hypothesis, for example.

3. New imaging tech could lower brain surgery risks

The "smart needle" in use during neurosurgery. Photo: Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Australia

Researchers have developed a hair-thin needle with a tiny camera and a warning system to more safely navigate during brain surgery, according to a feasibility study published in Science Advances Wednesday, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: Current use of MRI imaging to assist with brain needle surgeries does not have the resolution to detect small blood vessels, making the risk higher that the neurosurgeon could cause a brain bleed when conducting a biopsy.

  • This new needle — tested successfully so far on 11 patients — shows up to 98% accuracy in detecting those blood vessels.
  • Brain bleeds can cause complications, which can be fatal.

How it works: Study author Robert McLaughlin tells Axios that the team developed the probe, which consists of an optical fiber that's roughly the thickness of a human hair, with a tiny lens fabricated at the end. It's integrated into the biopsy needle, which is just 2 millimeters in diameter.

  • The probe shines a light down the fiber and reflects images from the tissue and flowing blood via a technique called optical coherence tomography, often used for high-resolution medical imaging.
  • The team developed a smart image processing algorithm to automatically detect blood vessels as small as 110 micrometers (μm) near the needle.
  • As the needle is inserted, it shows the image on a computer screen, which will highlight in red when it senses a blood vessel near the needle.

The results: They tested the "smart needle" in 11 surgeries, which had no complications resulting from their probe, McLaughlin says.

  • The needle detected blood vessels with a sensitivity of 91.3% and a specificity of 97.7% in blood vessels wider than 500 μm.
  • It achieved the same detections with a sensitivity of 86.2% and a specificity of 86.4% in all blood vessels, including those at the minimum diameter of 110 μm.

Outside perspective: Brian Wilson, head of a research lab at the University of Toronto and the Princess Margaret Cancer Center who was not involved in the new study, tells Axios, "These values for sensitivity and specificity are excellent and would certainly be sufficient to justify deploying the technology in the clinic."

What's next: The researchers hope to undertake a larger trial with patients who undergo brain biopsies, and they are looking for a medical device manufacturer to help bring it to market.

Go deeper: New imaging technology could lessen brain surgery risks

4. Axios stories worthy of your time

Scientists hunt for fruit bats possibly containing the Marburg virus in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Marburg virus detection: Researchers studying Egyptian fruit bats in Sierra Leone found that the creatures contain a deadly strain of the Marburg virus, a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola. This is the first detection in West Africa, and it means that Marburg outbreaks are possible there.

Obesity trends: Americans are getting fatter, according to new CDC data, Bob Herman reports. Since 1999, the average weight of men has increased from 189 pounds to 198 pounds, for example.

Paris Agreement rulebook is written: World leaders meeting in Poland agreed to a set of rules for reporting climate policies and goals under the Paris Climate Agreement. Recent, dire scientific assessments on global warming played a factor in the talks, Amy Harder reports.

Climate vs. coal: There is a fundamental disconnect between the need to cut global warming pollutants like carbon dioxide and global trends in coal consumption, Ben Geman details.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Super groupers are back: The photogenic goliath grouper, which can weigh up to 500 pounds, is making a comeback after overfishing, Michael Patrick O'Neill writes for Hakai Magazine. The docile creatures have been frequenting artificial reefs off the Florida coastline.

Nature's 10: Nature presents its list of the 10 scientists who mattered in 2018, including Viviane Slon, a palaeogeneticist who discovered an ancient hybrid hominin: half Neanderthal, half Denisovan; and He Jiankui, who claims he created gene-edited babies.

Year in review: The New York Times presents a thorough recap of 2018 in various science disciplines, including climate change, health and medicine, and space.

6. Something wondrous

The Mars InSight lander's seismometer deployed on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thanks to the Mars InSight lander, for the first time, we can now detect in near real time earthquakes on another planet.

  • Specifically, we can now detect "marsquakes." How cool is that?

Why it matters: The deployment of the InSight lander's first science instrument onto Martian soil since the spacecraft landed on Nov. 26 marks the beginning of studies that aim to learn more about Mars' interior, in the hopes that we will learn more about how the Red Planet formed.

Details: The lander's robotic arm placed the seismometer on the ground on Dec. 19, about 5 feet away from the lander itself, according to NASA.

"The seismometer is the highest-priority instrument on InSight: We need it in order to complete about three-quarters of our science objectives," said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt, in a press release.

What's next: Like earthquakes on our home planet, each marsquake helps reveal the structure of the planet's interior, by analyzing how seismic waves pass through the planet's many layers.

"Having the seismometer on the ground is like holding a phone up to your ear," said Philippe Lognonné, principal investigator of the seismometer instrument from Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and Paris Diderot University, in a press release.

Go deeper: NASA's InSight lander successfully touches down on Mars

Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading. I hope you have a happy holiday season, and I'll see you back here on Jan. 10, 2019.