Feb 21, 2019

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: We're at a climate turning point

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

We’re at the beginning of a make-or-break period to confront global warming. A combination of forces, from dire scientific reports to extreme weather events, has crystallized a movement to action.

What's new: In the past 2 years, a spate of dire scientific reports has hammered home the urgency of acting on this issue.

  • In October, a UN panel found that the effects of global warming are already evident worldwide.
  • To avoid more severe impacts, the panel said greenhouse gas emissions should be cut by about 45% by 2030, relative to 2010 levels — a Herculean task compared to current global trends.
  • Another report the Trump administration released on Black Friday tied trends in wildfires, sea level rise and heat waves to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The collective message from these studies is that the actions we take in the next 10–20 years will be crucial to determining the climate for centuries to come.

Yes, but: These studies don't mean that we're headed for certain doom, reminds Zeke Hausfather, a climate analyst with Carbon Brief. "I've seen a tendency recently for people to focus on overly dire projections of climate change, suggesting that it will lead to human extinction if we don't act in the next few years. ... This is not consistent with the current state of the science."

Polling shows some people are becoming more alarmed about global warming:

  • A December poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change and George Mason University found that the "alarmed" segment of the American public is at an all-time high of 29% — double the size in a 2013 survey.
  • The poll also showed a decline in Americans who are classified in the "dismissive" or "doubtful" camps.
  • The percentage of conservative Republicans who are worried about climate change has also reached an all-time high, according to Yale's Anthony Leiserowitz, who studies public opinion on climate change.
  • “More Americans think that climate change is here and now, affecting them here and now, and poses a risk to them personally than ever before,” he tells Axios.

Scientists are picking up on this shift in how their work is perceived.

"I sense that things are different now, but as a scientist I'd like to see the data and do a more careful analysis before inferring causality," Kate Marvel, a NASA climate scientist, tells Axios. "But I'm very happy to see the threat of climate change being taken seriously." 

"In general, the public's perception of just how real and dramatic this [climate change] is is changing quite quickly," journalist David Wallace-Wells, the author of the new book, "The Uninhabitable Earth," tells Axios.

What to watch: The recent scientific findings are also inspiring a new grassroots movement on this issue.

  • For example, citing the UN report, a 16-year-old Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, is inspiring thousands of school kids to stage walkouts in protest of the lack of climate action. These protests have swept across Europe and will reach the U.S. on March 15.

The bottom line: The next few years will show us whether that means there's a window for action or whether we'll just be more aware of our fate.

2. Evaluating predictive AI in medicine

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Some scientists are calling on the Food and Drug Administration to develop standards for advanced algorithms before they're placed in medical devices to help predict patients' outcomes, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

What's new: Advanced algorithms are being deployed in some devices to provide automated real-time predictions, but these offer new possibilities and challenges compared to older predictive tools.

Standards are needed to check these for safety and effectiveness before they are implemented in a clinical setting, scientists said in a policy forum in Science Thursday.

The big picture: Ravi B. Parikh, co-author of the paper and a fellow at University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, says, "Five years ago, AI and predictive analytics had yet to make a meaningful impact in clinical practice," he says. "In just the past 2–3 years, pre-market clearances have been granted for AI applications ranging from sepsis prediction to radiology interpretation."

"But if these tools are going to be used to determine patient care ... they should meet standards of clinical benefit just as the majority of our drugs and diagnostic tests do."
— Ravi B. Parikh, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Why now? Advanced algorithms present both opportunities and challenges, says Amol S. Navathe, paper co-author and assistant professor at Penn's School of Medicine. He tells Axios the opportunity is that algorithms "outperform clinicians, not a small feat."

Outside comment: Eric Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute who was not part of this paper, says the timing of these proposed standards is "very smart" before advanced algorithms are placed into too many devices.

  • "[The algorithm] doesn't translate necessarily into helping people," Topol tells Axios. "It can actually have no benefit."
  • Even worse, he adds, if the variables are off, the predictive analyses can have negative ramifications.

What's next: The scientists hope the FDA considers integrating the proposed standards alongside its current pre-certification program under the Digital Health Innovation Act to study clinical outcomes of AI-based tools, Ravi says.

Go deeper: Scientists call for rules on evaluating predictive AI in medicine

3. Zebra stripes confuse biting flies

Joren Bruggink and Jai Lake investigate how horse flies behave around horses wearing different colored coats. Photo: Tim Caro/UC Davis

The next time you're looking to avoid getting bit by flies, you might want to try putting on zebra-patterned clothing.

Why it matters: A study published Feb. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE helps explain why zebras, with their prominent stripes, don't get bit by many horseflies. It sheds further light on a mystery that has puzzled scientists for more than a century: How did zebras get their stripes?

Tim Caro, a wildlife biologist at the University of California, Davis, and Martin How of the University of Bristol led experiments on a horse farm in Britain to observe flies' attempts to land on zebras and horses.

Background: Caro's previous research has shown that zebras are found in regions where biting flies are common and their stripes likely serve as a deterrent. The new study investigates how flies are affected by such stripes.

What they did: The scientists recorded close-up videos to determine flight trajectories as flies closed in on their targets. They also dressed the horses and zebras in black and white, as well as black-and-white striped coats, to see how the patterns and colors affected the flies' flight paths.

What they found: The study shows that the zebra stripes did not deter flies from trying to land on zebras when compared to horses. However, they saw far fewer touches and landings from biting flies, which can spread disease, than bare horses did.

Video analysis showed that horse flies approached zebras at faster speeds and failed to decelerate before hitting their skin. Proportionately, more horse flies hit zebras and simply bounced off when compared to horse fly approaches to horses, which involved more successful landings and bites.

The horses cloaked in stripes saw fewer fly landings on the striped portions, but there were no differences in landings and bites to their bare heads.

What they're saying: “Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes,” How said in a press release.

4. Axios stories worthy of your time

Illustration:Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Pro Rata Podcast: The climate change tipping point, including an interview with yours truly.

Space Force! The Trump administration moved closer to establishing the U.S. Space Force this week by signing a directive spelling out a legislative proposal.

Congo Ebola outbreak: The continued geographic spread of Ebola in the DRC, despite a slowdown in new cases, is alarming some health experts, Eileen reports.

AI for evil: A messy debate is playing out around an urgent question: What to do with dual-use technologies, like AI, that can be used for good or ill, Kaveh Waddell explores.

FDA regulation of opioids: Federal regulators and fentanyl manufacturers didn't act when it became clear that highly potent fentanyl products were being improperly prescribed to up to 50% of the patients taking them, Caitlin Owens writes.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

The Israeli "Beresheet" lunar lander. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Israel's Moonshot: A lunar lander scheduled to launch to space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Thursday evening could become the first privately funded spacecraft to land on the moon, Nature News reports. The craft is named Beresheet, Hebrew for, "in the beginning."

Climate science trailblazer dies: Wallace Broecker, a climate researcher at Columbia University, passed away this week at the age of 87. He is credited with pioneering insights into global ocean currents and for sounding early alarms about global warming that proved prescient, NYT reports.

Drug risk perception: A new study finds that viewers of direct-to-consumer drug ads don't properly distinguish between major and minor side effects, suggesting that FDA regulations requiring the disclosure of both types of side effects may be backfiring, Scientific American reports.

Giant bee: The world's largest bee species has been spotted in the wild for the first time since 1981. It's HUGE, writes Mark Kaufman for Mashable.

6. Something wondrous: NOx never looked so beautiful
Expand chart
Data: Descartes Labs via ESA; Map: Harry Stevens/Axios

This map shows a two-month average of the abundance of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air, as sensed from space by the new Sentinel-5P satellite from the European Space Agency.

Why it matters: The image, generated by scientists and data specialists at the space data analysis firm Descartes Labs, shows us the human footprint on the planet. “I find it fascinating that this image would be mostly blank if people weren’t here burning stuff,” says Tim Wallace, creative lead at Descartes Labs.

Nitrogen dioxide is part of a group of gases referred to as nitrogen oxides, or NOx. NOx is a key contributor to smog and a major health hazard, so monitoring it will help track its major sources.

“Whenever we’re burning for either power production or transportation, anything that we’re burning is going to emit NOx," Laura Mazzaro, an atmospheric scientist and environmental engineer at Descartes Labs, tells Axios.

The big picture: NOx has a short atmospheric lifetime, on the scale of hours, so satellite sensors can give a near-real-time picture of combustion worldwide, from the cars leading to L.A. smog to biomass burning in the vast forests of Indonesia and South America.

“It affects people’s quality of life directly,” Mazzaro says.

A lot of point sources visible in the image are to be expected, such as major cities and oil production hubs. However, the hazy bands of NOx over the Amazon and sub-Saharan Africa may be clues to different sources of the compound, and interestingly, the satellite is even able to show typically used shipping routes.

Why you'll hear about this again: Mazzaro says the Sentinel satellite's capabilities could be used for monitoring compliance with environmental agreements, including air pollution reduction commitments on NOx, acid rain and any future regulations on methane pollution, given that it is a potent greenhouse gas that is on the increase.

Go deeper: What We Burn Creates an Eerily Navigable Map of Earth (Medium)

Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading, and see you back here next Thursday. Have a great week!