Axios Science

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June 06, 2019

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1 big thing: Microplastics lurk in the deep sea

A giant larvacean encountered during the study
A giant larvacean encountered in the study. Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium and MBARI

Huge quantities of microplastics can be found in the twilight zone depths of the ocean, where sunlight does not penetrate, a new study conducted in Monterey Bay finds.

Why it matters: The research, published Thursday in Scientific Reports, indicates that microplastics — tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimeters across — are entering the deep sea and being consumed as part of the marine food web. It's thought that these particles may be harming ocean life, but the details on that are just emerging.

What they did: A team of researchers used remotely operated vehicles outfitted with specialized sampling devices to capture and analyze microplastics at various depths.

They also studied the presence of microplastics in two filter-feeding species: giant larvaceans and pelagic red crabs.

  • The species migrate from deep ocean waters to the near surface each day in order to feed.
  • Pelagic red crabs, which are a food source for larger fish, can collect food and bits of plastic via tiny hairs on their exoskeleton.
  • Larvaceans, which resemble tadpoles, manufacture mucus filters called "mucous snot houses" that collect material — including microplastics — and discard it when they're full. Those sacs, known as sinkers, then fall toward the ocean floor and are eaten by other animals as they descend.

Scientists also analyzed the chemical composition of the microplastics.

What they found: The levels of microplastic pollution in the gastrointestinal systems of the creatures studied indicates that there is as much, if not greater, plastic pollution at some depths as there is in the well-known Great Pacific Garbage Patch, researchers tell Axios.

  • One of the largest plastic reservoirs of marine microplastics can be found within the water column and animals of the deep sea, the study shows.
  • “We found microplastics in their guts, every specimen we collected had microplastics in them," co-author Anela Choy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, tells Axios.
  • The researchers found similar concentrations of microplastic particles from near the surface and in the deepest waters surveyed.

Surprisingly, they found about 4 times the concentrations of microplastic particles in the midwater range, from about 600 feet down to about 2,000 feet, compared to surface waters. “We may be missing the largest reservoir of microplastics in the ocean,” Choy said of studies to date that have focused mostly on the ocean surface.

  • Scans of the microplastics found in the study showed about 40% of them contained polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as well as polyamide and polycarbonate — all of which are mainly used for consumer products rather than in fishing lines and other sources of marine plastic.

What we don't know: Scientists are just beginning to investigate the risks of microplastic pollution on human and animal health, so expect more news on this front in the next few years.

What they're saying: Kyle S. Van Houtan, chief scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a study co-author, tells Axios the study contains many concerning findings, but he is optimistic since much of the plastic in the deep sea can be reduced by phasing out single-use plastics on land.

“This is something we can make a big difference on by making changes in our lives," he says.

2. Moons forming in distant space

the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70.
Image from the SPHERE instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope shows the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. Image: ESO/A. Müller et al.

For the first time, scientists have caught sight of a ring of dust and debris around a planet as it forms, Axios’ Miriam Kramer reports.

  • The new results were published this week in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, and they shed light on the process of planetary formation.

Why it matters: The disk surrounding the planet — named PDS 70 b — is viewed as a sign that moons could form around it, which is estimated to be about 4–17 times more massive than Jupiter.

  • The planet is orbiting a star 370 light-years from Earth.
  • “We think the large moons of Jupiter and other gas giants were born in such a disc, so our work helps to explain how planets in our solar system formed,” one of the researchers behind the new study, Valentin Christiaens, said in a statement.

What they did: The scientists used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to stare at the planet and spot the disc surrounding it.

  • PDS 70 b was discovered in 2018 by the same telescope, and its star — called PDS 70 — is thought to be about 6 million years old, making it much younger than our sun.
  • The star’s age indicates that it’s still in the relatively early stages of development, as the large disk of ice, gas and dust surrounding it coalesces into planets.

Background: Another planet — named PDS 70 c — was also spotted orbiting the star recently.

  • According to a separate study published in the journal Nature Astronomy this week, both PDS 70 b and PDS 70 c are carving gaps for themselves in the circumstellar disk around the star as they consume up material, growing in orbit.

What’s next: By studying this solar system so far from our own, scientists will be able to piece together more about how planets, moons and stars form.

3. Health officials differ on Ebola optimism

Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Harry Stevens/Axios
Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Harry Stevens/Axios

The World Health Organization said Thursday there are signs the numbers of confirmed Ebola cases and the outbreak's geographical footprint have lessened over the past couple of weeks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

The other side: This is in sharp contrast to what other experts and organizations have been saying, with the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning at a hearing that he anticipates the deadly virus will spread outside the DRC, and multiple international health officials calling for a "reset" in containment efforts.

Yes, but: Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO's health emergencies program, says, "This outbreak doesn't have a reset button. Unfortunately, we don't get choices like that. ... We get to learn and adapt [instead]."

By the numbers: Total cases since the outbreak started Aug. 1 breached 2,000 this week, and Ryan cautioned at Thursday's press briefing that the outbreak still could intensify — including a "worst case scenario" of lasting up to another 2 years — but he stressed there are now some "hopeful" changes in trajectories.

  • Confirmed cases the past 2 weeks dropped to 88 each week, which is lower than April's average of 126 cases/week.
  • There's a "smaller geographical footprint" as the outbreak has shrunk to 75 health areas in 12 health zones in the DRC.

Between the lines: Jennifer Nuzzo of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Axios that despite the lower recent numbers, there's "cause for concern" due to the large number of cases that were not known disease contacts, violence targeting Ebola treatment centers, and fears of an upcoming shortage of the Ebola vaccine.

  • Nuzzo believes that Ebola will likely spread over the border: "I see absolutely no reason to think that this will not happen."
  • She says she's also concerned about a vaccine shortage and cautions that WHO's recommendations to either dilute the current vaccine or add a second experimental vaccine that has less research behind it may be impractical.
  • "We need a very realistic plan for expanding the vaccine supplies."

Go deeper: Follow Axios' Ebola coverage here.

5. Stories we're reading elsewhere

A beachgoer looks at a dead juvenile Gray Whale on Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore in Point Reyes Station, California.
A beachgoer looks at a dead juvenile Gray Whale on Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore on May 25 in Point Reyes Station, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Edward O. Wilson: In Ecology Studies and Selfless Ants, He Finds Hope for the Future (Claudia Dreifus, Quanta)

Gray whale deaths could reach record levels this year; NOAA opens investigation (Elizabeth Weise, USA Today)

Can the Paris Climate Goals Save Lives? Yes, a Lot of Them, Researchers Say (Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times)

Redefining normal: Study shows mutations even in healthy tissues throughout the body (Brittany Flaherty, Stat News)

6. Something wondrous: X-ray map of solar system

This image of the whole sky shows 22 months of X-ray data recorded by NASA's Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer
An image of the whole sky showing 22 months of X-ray data from NASA's Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer payload aboard the International Space Station during its nighttime slews between targets. Image: NASA/NICER

This image, which at first might strike you as a visualization of global flights or shipping traffic, is actually far more otherworldly.

In fact, this is a map of the entire sky in X-rays, as recorded by NASA's Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), aboard the International Space Station.

Why it matters: NICER's imagery could one day result in a navigation system that would allow spacecraft to navigate autonomously using an X-ray-based map of the solar system.

Details: The map includes data from the first 22 months of NICER’s science operations. Each arc traces X-rays, as well as occasional strikes from energetic particles, captured after sunset.

  • The arcs form in areas NICER frequently targets for observations, and the bright spots are found at X-ray sources (like galaxies and quickly spinning neutron stars called pulsars) that the mission scientists are most keenly interested in.
  • "We’re gradually building up a new X-ray image of the whole sky, and it’s possible NICER’s nighttime sweeps will uncover previously unknown sources,” said Keith Gendreau, the mission’s principal investigator, in a statement.

Context: NICER mainly aims to measure the dense remains of stars, known as neutron stars, with extraordinary precision.

  • "These measurements will finally allow physicists to solve the mystery of what form of matter exists in their incredibly compressed cores," NASA says.

BONUS: The Keeling Curve hits 2019 peak

Data: NOAA, Scripps; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: NOAA, Scripps; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The monthly peak amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere in 2019 jumped by a near-record amount to reach 414.8 parts per million (ppm) in May, which is the highest level in human history and likely the highest level in the past 3 million years. (The post-1958 portion is known as the Keeling Curve, after Charles David Keeling, who began the observations.)

Why it matters: Carbon dioxide is the most important long-lived greenhouse gas, with a single molecule lasting in the air for hundreds to around 1,000 years. The buildup of carbon dioxide due to human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy, is driving global temperatures up and instigating harmful impacts worldwide.

  • Carbon dioxide levels increased by a near-record amount of 3.5 ppm since 2018.
  • Viewed in the historical context of the past 800,000 years, based on tiny air bubbles contained in Antarctic ice cores, the recent climb in CO2 levels is stark.

Background: The highest monthly mean carbon dioxide value typically occurs in May, before plants take in large amounts of greenhouse gases during the Northern Hemisphere growing season.

Go deeper: Earth's carbon dioxide has jumped to the highest level in human history

Thanks so much for reading, and see you back here next week.