Aug 16, 2018

Axios Science

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1 big thing: El Niño — don't call it a comeback
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Note: Temperature anomalies are relative to the 1985 to 2012 average; Data: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Map: Chris Canipe/Axios

In the tropical waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, conditions appear to be primed for the development of an El Niño event, with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Why it matters: If an El Niño does develop, even a weak one, it could influence weather patterns around the world — from increasing the odds of above-average winter precipitation in California to favoring drought conditions in Indonesia. It could also provide a natural boost to global average surface temperatures, nudging 2018 and possibly 2019 further up the ladder of the hottest years on record.

The big picture: El Niño events are characterized by above-average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial tropical Pacific Ocean. These elevated ocean temperatures affect the location and intensity of tropical showers and thunderstorms across the Pacific.

  • In order to get a fully-fledged El Niño event started, though, a series of events in the atmosphere and the ocean has to take place.
  • Wind patterns across the Pacific, for example, need to help bring the elevated ocean heat lurking in the deep up to the surface of the sea.
  • "Westerly wind bursts" — which blow in the opposite direction from normal trade winds north of the equator — can help bring above-average ocean temperatures.

What we're hearing: Right now, the Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a 70% likelihood of El Niño conditions developing by fall and winter, which is when such events typically peak.

  • Michelle L’Heureux, a meteorologist at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in Maryland, tells Axios that the upcoming event is unlikely to be as potent as the last El Niño was in 2015 and 2016 — but that had been one of the most intense events on record.
"If something forms it’s likely to be on the weaker side of things," she says. "In general, weaker events tend to be a bit tougher to predict than stronger events.”
  • Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, tells Axios that he's confident an El Niño is developing.
“The evidence is truly mounting."

Go deeper: Read the rest of the story.

2. Wheat genome mapped out

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists announced today they have mapped out more than 94% of the genome of Chinese Spring bread wheat — adding that by manipulating its genetic code, people could eventually improve global food security and possibly alleviate some immune disorders like celiac disease or wheat allergies, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Why it matters: By 2050, the world is expected to have around 9.8 billion people (up from 7.6 billion today). As the staple of more than a third of all people, this means wheat productivity must increase by at least 1.6% each year — but rather than farming more scarce land, the researchers hope wheat genes can be manipulated to enhance nutrition, improve sustainability and production, and lessen immune reactions.

"[This] is a true milestone in wheat research. This is the foundation for future breeding strategies that will help develop improved wheat cultivars that are resistant to climate change, pests and pathogens while providing good agricultural performance in terms of yield and nutrient density."
Katharina Scherf, of the Leibniz-Institute for Food Systems Biology, Technical University of Munich

Background: The 13-year collaboration of more than 200 scientists coordinated by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium successfully accomplished what was once considered impossible — sequencing the genome, which is huge (5 times longer than the human genome) and complex (it has 3 subgenomes).

  • The findings are published in multiple studies in Science (here and here), Science Advances, and later today, four more studies in Genome Biology.

What they found: The teams mapped out the sequence of 21 chromosomes, with the precise location of 107,891 genes.

  • This includes 828 genes related to immune-responsive proteins, which play a role in wheat allergies like baker's asthma or wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis (WDEIA). These genes also play a role in celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease where the CD4 T-cells react to gluten from wheat (and other grains), damaging the small intestine.
  • They also identified more than 4 million molecular markers plus the sequencing information that influences the expression of genes.
  • They found that temperatures before or during the "flowering" of the wheat plant can affect the levels of proteins that can be harmful to certain people with wheat allergens or celiac disease.

Go deeper: Read Eileen's full story.

3. No end in sight for Florida red tide crisis

Veterinarian Heather Barron cares for a loggerhead sea turtle that became sick from the red tide in Sanibel, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida's southwest coast has been ravaged by two unprecedented algae outbreaks that are killing wildlife, making people sick and crushing the crucial tourism industry, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

Why it matters: The worst algae blooms in Florida's modern history have spurred political finger-pointing that could sway one of the country's most closely-watched Senate races this fall.

The big picture: The algae outbreaks are the largest and longest-lasting in years. Weather patterns coupled with pressures on land use are stoking long-held tensions over natural resources between two of the state's biggest industries — agriculture and tourism. And it's happening at a time when Florida is also seeing massive population growth.

What's happening: The crisis is caused by two separate but equally toxic algae blooms. One is a salt-water red tide in the Gulf of Mexico, while the other is fresh-water blue-green algae stemming from the inland waters of Lake Okeechobee. The inland algae is festering in the vast canals and winding inland waterways of Southwest Florida.

  • Red tide is caused by a flare of microorganisms, often in summer, that turns the water rust-colored. The inland event features guacamole-like, blue-green algae that started in giant Lake Okeechobee and spread to surrounding rivers and canals on the way to the coast.
  • Each bloom, on its own, has turned water toxic and devastated marine life. Dozens of turtles, fish, dolphins, eels, manatees and even a whale shark have washed up dead on area beaches.
  • Scientists don't know why the blooms are so severe this year. They suspect it's a combination of record rainfall, high levels of nitrogen caused by agricultural run-off, warmer waters, and other human activity.
  • Gov. Rick Scott has declared two emergencies to deal with the blooms, the first one related to Lake Okeechobee and the latest on Monday to help seven coastal counties with the cleanup effort.

Residents have held town halls and organized rallies to put pressure on elected officials to do more. As a result, candidates are making environmental issues a central part of their campaigns leading up to the Aug. 28 Florida primaries and November elections.

Read more of Kim's story.

4. Axios stories worthy of your time
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Data: Ministry of Health DRC; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Ebola: Eileen writes that the hemorrhagic virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to spread in the country and is on the "precipice" to spread farther, per a World Health Organization official.

In hot water: A new study, published in the journal Nature, finds that marine heat wave days have doubled between 1982 and 2016, partly due to human-caused global warming. The study finds marine heat waves are a major future threat.

Zinke: During an appearance on Fox Business on Thursday morning, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke broke sharply with the scientific consensus regarding mankind's role in climate change.

Fracking: The amount of water needed for new oil and gas wells developed via fracking has surged in recent years — and it's slated to keep rising — Duke University researchers conclude in a new paper, Axios' Ben Geman reports.

America's recycling problem (video): The U.S. has long exported about one-third of its recycling, the majority of it going to China. This year, new Chinese regulations are limiting how much recycling the U.S. can send. This Axios video details the consequences.

Wildfires: Three of California's largest-ever wildfires are burning at the same time, as thousands battle the flames. The fires erupted during California's hottest month on record.

AI: Doctors at a U.K. hospital are getting algorithmic help interpreting the results of 3D eye scans, using a system from Google's DeepMind that can identify more than 50 eye problems and suggest a course of action, Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Gene editing rules: Special regulations for gene therapy experiments are being eliminated, top health officials announced Thursday, AP's Marilynn Marchione reports. The reason? "What was once exotic science is quickly becoming an established form of medical care with no extraordinary risks." The story details the new system, too.

Weed killer worries: A flurry of stories was published Thursday on the detection of the weed killer Roundup in children's cereal and other products, but there's no reason for hysteria, argues Slate's Susan Matthews.

The fishing cats of Colombo: The adaptations of fishing cats to life in the bustling city of Colombo, Sri Lanka, may teach scientists whether evolutionary pressures could increase the intelligence of city-dwelling animals, The Atlantic's Paul Bisceglio writes.

Naming battle erupts in Hawaii: Kilauea volcano has given rise to a new, 100-foot tall cone. How it will be named is far more complicated than you would've guessed, according to Mashable's Mark Kaufman.

6. Something wondrous

Image of the Milky Way Galaxy with bright other galaxies circled in blue, and faint ones in white. Photo: Durham University

By studying faint galaxies that dot the edges of the Milky Way, astronomers say they believe those are some of the earliest-known galaxies, according to a new study out today. The researchers say the faintest galaxies orbiting the Milky Way may be some of the first to be formed in the universe.

What they found: Based on calculating the "luminosity function" in the cluster of stars, the researchers say galaxies including Segue-1, Bootes I and Ursa Major I are among the first ever formed — which would place them at over 13 billion years of age, according to astronomers from the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The researchers focused on galaxies that formed during the so-called "cosmic dark ages," a period soon after the universe's creation that lasted about 100 million years. This period, during which atoms began to cool and clump together into dark matter, is believed to have led to the formation of the first stars and galaxies.

"In our sort of current theory for how we think galaxies formed it’s predicted that there should be galaxies of varying levels of brightness, of mass and of age sort of scattered throughout the universe," study author Sownak Bose, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells Axios.

"And it so happens from what we found that the faintest galaxies that we actually see around the Milky Way, the faintest ones tend to be the ones that are the most ancient ones as well."
— Sownak Bose

Interestingly, the first galaxies helped lead to about a billion-year period when galaxy formation shut down altogether, Bose says, because their stars emitted radiation that broke down the available neutral hydrogen in the universe at the time. It's this hydrogen that helps form stars.

"They kind of inhibit the formation of stars in other small galaxies. Then the only things that can form after a certain point in time are the bigger galaxies which have enough of a gravitational well to them to actually form stars," Bose says.
"[S]mall galaxies ... through their own heating mechanism actually starve themselves of the fuel to produce any further stars and therefore end up being fixed in mass at some level.”