Oct 11, 2018

Axios Science

Andrew Freedman

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1 big thing: Hope in a time of dire climate news

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

This week, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major new report on the feasibility of meeting a global warming target of 1.5°C, or 2.7°F, above preindustrial levels. It makes for sobering reading, and coverage of it was downright apocalyptic. (I'm as guilty as other reporters in focusing on the disturbing aspects.)

But, but but: There are other frameworks for climate change, including ones that focus on courage, resilience and opportunity. I asked three top climate scientists to comment on the new report in an email conversation. Here are some of their key points.

Reality check: Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech, said climate change is relevant to the here and now.

"What the 1.5°C report brings home is that the future is now. The choice is upon us," Hayhoe told me. "We don’t have all the Jetson-era technology we imagined we’d have when the chickens came home to roost. But the world is already changing."

"And yes, it is an opportunity — an opportunity to transform the very fabric of our society, from its current patterns of consumption that will soon exceed our planetary boundaries to one that is able to sustain our human civilization for millennia to come."
— Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University

The big question: Kate Marvel, a NASA climate scientist, discussed the need for facing climate change courageously, rather than getting depressed or scared.

"It makes no sense to give up now, even though the future seems very scary," Marvel said. She's unique in climate science for talking about how it feels to be studying this issue.

"It's OK to grieve over the things we've lost and will lose. But grief isn't the same as despair. We need to be brave enough to do the right thing."
— Kate Marvel, NASA

Don't forget: Andrea Dutton, a scientist at the University of Florida, said it's important to remember that we all face a choice in determining our future.

"If we choose despair, then yes, that doom and gloom can be ours. But if instead, we find the courage to face our fears about the ways in which the future might be different, I am sure that we will be able to carve ourselves a new pathway to a better future."
— Andrea Dutton, University of Florida

Go deeper: Slaying the Climate Dragon, Kate Marvel's new climate fairytale, in Scientific American.

2. Scientists grow human retinas to study color detection

Retinal organoid at 291 days. Red and green cone cells are green in the photo, while blue cone cells are blue. Photo: Johns Hopkins University

Scientists were able to grow human retinas from stem cells over a 1-year period, allowing them to mimic human fetal development of retinas and closely observe how color-detecting cells form, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Why it matters: The information they gathered could be used to prevent or treat eye diseases and disorders like glaucoma, macular degeneration, color blindness and eye problems from premature births, Johns Hopkins University scientists say in a new study published in Science Thursday.

Background: Retinas detect light and determine colors. Humans have 3 types of "cone photoreceptors," which are color-detecting cells that sense red (long wavelength), green (medium wavelength) or blue (short wavelength) light.

What they did: The scientists took stem cells, which have the ability to become any type of cell, and directed them to grow into hundreds of "retinal organoids," which are simplified organ tissues. This way, they could monitor the photoreceptor development, including the role played by thyroid hormones.

  • Researchers checked their development over the 1-year period to see when the different color cones formed.
  • They also used the gene editing technology, CRISPR, to knock out the thyroid hormone receptor in the cone cells at different times.

What they found: Blue cones form first, while red and green cones develop later, study author Kiara Eldred says.

"We also found the timing of thyroid hormone exposure is really key to developing the red/green cones and the lack of thyroid hormone is important to developing the blue ones," says Eldred, who's a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins.

  • The researchers hypothesize that the retina contains genes that help control the level of thyroid hormone received via the placenta.

What they're saying: Jay Neitz, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington, who was not part of this study, tells Axios (while cautioning this is an early step):

"[T]hese results open the way to taking a cell from a person with inherited eye disease, repairing the genetic mistake, growing a retina from the person's own repaired cell and transplanting the repaired cells back in the eye to cure a blinding disorder."
3. Michael's place in Atlantic hurricane history
Expand chart
Note: The Atlantic storm season spans June 1 through Nov. 30. Storms do occur outside of that window, but not all of them are shown here; Data: National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

This chart shows every Atlantic hurricane tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 1987, including Hurricane Michael. The higher the line within each year, the higher the recorded wind speed.

By the numbers: Notice the short, sharp rise in the line with Hurricane Michael, which exploded from a tropical storm to a near-Category 5 hurricane in just 4 days — including a period of rapid intensification on Tuesday and Wednesday straight through landfall.

That's why the chart shows such a rapid increase in wind speed. Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle with the third-lowest atmospheric pressure of any storm on record in the continental United States (919 millibars) and was among the five strongest storms to hit the lower 48 states by sustained winds at landfall (155 mph).

Go deeper: How Hurricane Michael got so strong, so quickly

4. Axios stories worthy of your time

The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft is launched with flight engineer Nick Hague of NASA and flight engineer Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos on Oct. 11 in Kazakhstan. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Rocket malfunction: A U.S. astronaut and Russian cosmonaut are safe after a Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned while carrying them to the International Space Station, Lauren Meier reports. Russia has launched an investigation.

Extreme weather podcast: Dan Primack's Pro Rata podcast featured a discussion on Hurricane Michael, extreme weather and climate change.

IPCC report: Scientists warned in a new UN climate report that a more stringent climate target, which would dramatically lessen risks worldwide, is nearly out of reach unless we undertake massive emissions cuts by 2030.

Energy transition: Here are the steps that would be needed to meet the more stringent climate target, Ben Geman reports.

AI and human thought: Kaveh Waddell shows how the AI community is reacting to a new essay from Henry Kissinger, arguing that AI could erode humans' ability to think critically.

5. What we're reading elsewhere
Hurricane Michael nears the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10 as a high-end Cat. 4 hurricane. Credit: NASA

Same-sex parents: Scientists in China used gene editing and stem cells to create a small number of healthy baby mice from same-sex female and male parents, raising ethical questions about the technology one day being used in humans, Dina Fine Maron writes for Scientific American.

Climate costs: The NYT's Binyamin Appelbaum profiles Yale economist William Nordhaus, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences this week for his work modeling the economic impacts of climate change.

5,000: The estimated number of faces the average person can recognize, reports The Guardian's Ian Sample. The researchers say its the first estimate of this human ability and one that could improve facial recognition technology.

Stephen Hawking's legacy: The famous physicist's last scientific paper, completed in March shortly before his death, was posted online this week, per Ian Sample. He and his colleagues argue that some information can be recorded in a black hole.

6. Something wondrous

Bee collecting nectar off a flower. Photo: Holger Hollemann/picture alliance/Getty Images

Solar eclipses are viewed as must-see phenomena, but bees don't treat them that way, according to a study in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Michael Sykes reports.

What we're hearing: Nothing.

During the 2017 solar eclipse, bees were completely silent. As the full shadow of the moon covered up sunlight, bees stopped buzzing. They resumed activity shortly after the moon's alignment between the Earth and the sun shifted and daylight returned.

The details: This break in action was caught on tape by a group of more than 400 volunteers using tiny microphones and temperature sensors near flowers across 16 locations in Oregon, Idaho and Missouri, all of which were in the path of totality.

Researchers expected to see a change in behavior, said Candace Galen, the lead author and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, according to a press release. Marina Koren writes in The Atlantic that what was unexpected was the abruptness of the shift.

“It was like ‘lights out’ at summer camp! That surprised us.”
— Candace Galen

How it works: The shift from sunlight to midday darkness triggered night mode in the bees. Bees fly low during dusk and, as it gets closer to night, they return to their colonies to sleep.

Be smart: Animals' reactions to eclipses have been recorded for centuries, according to National Geographic.

  • Ristoro d'Arezzo, an Italian monk, wrote "all the animals and birds were terrified; and the wild beasts could easily be caught," on June 3, 1239.
  • Astronomer Christoph Clavius wrote, “Stars appeared in the sky and (marvelous to behold) the birds fell down from the sky to the ground in terror of such horrid darkness," on Aug. 21, 1560.

It's nearly impossible to confirm those accounts, but researchers in 1973 observed erratic reactions in captive squirrels. In 2009, Blue Bulls reacted with different feeding, lying and social interaction times.

Now we can add bees to this list.

Andrew Freedman

Thanks for reading. See you next Thursday, and every day on the Axios stream.