May 31, 2018

Axios Science

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This is my first week at the helm of this newsletter, as Alison Snyder moves on to guide Axios Expert Voices. Don't worry though, I haven't gone totally rogue (yet), and Alison will still be contributing science stories.

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1 big thing: Moving to a sustainable food system
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Adapted from Poore et al., 2018, "Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers," Science; Chart: Axios Visuals

Producing food for the world's 7.6 billion people creates about 13.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year, plus other major environmental effects. A new study published in Science today attempts to take stock of the global food system's environmental footprint, and proposes how to reduce it.

Between the lines: The study makes the point that greater gains can be made by altering human dietary habits than by changing food production practices. If people were to switch to plant-based diets, we would reduce food's emissions by up to 70% and slash the amount of land devoted to agricultural use by about three-quarters.

"This says something new — it will always be better to consume vegetable proteins/milks, rather than trying to purchase sustainable animal products."
— Study co-author Joseph Poore, University of Oxford

The study: The researchers claim to provide the most comprehensive database ever assembled on how different production practices and locations affect the environmental footprint of more than two dozen foods.

  • The researchers included information on a staggering 38,700 farms, as well as 1,600 food processors, packagers, and retailers in 119 countries.

Key findings:

  • The modern food supply chain causes 26% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Freshwater aquaculture ponds can emit more greenhouse gases, including methane, than dairy cows per kilogram of liveweight.
  • The same food product's environmental impacts can vary by as much as 50 times, depending on a farm's land use practices, location and other factors.
  • Even the highest-emitting plant protein producers still emit far fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases than dairy cow producers do.

The bottom line: "Cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car, while important, cannot achieve such large reductions on such a wide range of environmental issues," Poore told Axios.

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

2. I'm leaving this table if you bring up her emails

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Heightened partisan divisions associated with the 2016 presidential election resulted in a shortening of Americans' Thanksgiving dinners that year, by 30–50 minutes, a new study in Science found.

Why it matters: The research, using precinct-level polling information and a vast database of anonymized cellphone location records, suggests that Americans are less willing to socialize with family members who hold opposing political viewpoints. However, at least one outside expert is raising the alarm on using that level of data for non-government surveillance.

"I have not come across a paper that relied on such precise cellphone data. This strikes me as novel and innovative. It also makes me feel a little uneasy."
— Jeremy Frimer, political scientist, University of Winnipeg

Go deeper: Read the rest of the story.

3. Every volcano that has erupted since Krakatoa
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Data: The Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism Program; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Axios' Lazaro Gamio writes: At least 404 terrestrial volcanoes have erupted since 1883 — the year of Krakatoa's historic eruption.

The details: Nearly 200 of these eruptions have occurred since the year 2000. These eruptions have varied in size and effects.

  • Some are downright cataclysmic, like the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington, while other eruptions are much smaller, frequent and localized.
  • Kilauea, the shield volcano now causing destructive lava flows in Hawaii, has erupted 95 times since 1883.

To learn more, read the rest of Lazaro's story and see his interactive graphic here.

4. Axios stories worthy of your time

The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired the data for this false-color view of the lava flow from the Kilauea volcano as it appeared on the night of May 23, 2018. Credit: NASA

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Infant screening: Newborns need to be tested for more genetic diseases, Emily Mullin writes in MIT Review. Emerging studies appear to show early genetic therapy may be saving children's lives from diseases like spinal muscular atrophy and Lazaro's Oil disease. Current testing varies by state, she adds.

The winners: The Kavli prize laureates were announced Wednesday for astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, AP's Malcolm Ritter reports. These included three of the scientists who developed the gene editing tool, CRISP-R Cas9.

Another 1,000-year rainstorm: On May 27, Ellicott City, Md., was pounded with its second 1,000-year rainstorm in 2 years, leading to deadly flash flooding. Meteorologist Jeff Halverson explains how it happened for the Washington Post.

6. Something wondrous

The Tarantula Nebula is located within the Large Megellanic Cloud, about 160,000 light-years from Earth. The VLT telescope took this image, which is the sharpest ever taken of this entire area. Image: ESO

The glow of the Tarantula Nebula — a cloud of dust and gas about 160,000 light-years from Earth — was first recorded by French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille in 1751. Using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal University in Chile, researchers recently took the sharpest-ever image of this part of our universe.

Portrait of a nebula: Star clusters, glowing gas clouds and the remnants of supernova explosions all reside within the Tarantula Nebula, which spans more than 1,000 light-years.

  • The nebula includes a giant star cluster known as NGC 2070 that contains some of the most massive and bright stars known to exist.
  • It's also home to Hodge 301, where 40 stars are thought to have exploded as supernovae, sending gas throughout the region.

How they did it: This image was taken using the VLT's 256-megapixel camera called the OmegaCAM. It was created using four colored filters, including one that detects the red glow of ionized hydrogen, ESO said.

Go deeper: The ESO also released an annotated version of the Tarantula Nebula and its surroundings.