Dec 13, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: The Arctic is turning from white to blue
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Data: Adapted from Karjalainen et al., 2018, “Circumpolar raster grids of permafrost extent and geohazard potential for near-future climate scenarios”; Map: Chris Canipe/Axios

Rapid climate change is transforming the Arctic into a state never before seen in human history, scientists tell Axios.

Why it matters: Land ice and sea ice are melting, and humanity is slowly losing the refrigerator of the Northern Hemisphere, which could have drastic implications for iconic wildlife, global weather patterns and valuable infrastructure.

Details: The Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world, and melting sea ice and snow are yielding ground to darker ocean waters and land cover, which absorb more of the sun’s incoming energy.

“The Arctic is shifting over time from white to blue. ... It’s a game-changer.”
— Karen Frey, a geographer at Clark University

Frey, who helped write a federal report on the changing Arctic that was released Tuesday, says the tightly interwoven nature of the Arctic environment means there’s a series of domino effects taking place, the results of which we don’t yet fully understand.

Permafrost isn’t actually forever: Increasing temperatures are causing the once-deep layer of permanently frozen soil to melt from within.

  • The threat: A new study co-authored by Vladimir Romanovsky at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks found that in 2017, for the first time on record, 25 permafrost stations in central Alaska saw no refreezing at all in the uppermost layers.
  • Based on climate model projections and recent trends, permafrost melt would put 70% of Arctic infrastructure at risk by 2050. This could imperil oil and gas pipelines that took the endurance of permafrost for granted.

The impact: "It is very likely that there will be an increasing amount of problems (e.g., infrastructure damages) if climate warming and thaw of ice-rich permafrost proceeds as projected," Jan Hjort, a geographer at the University of Oulu in Finland, who led the new permafrost infrastructure study, told Axios in an email.

Some of the already observed effects of permafrost melt include:

  • Forests with trees losing their rooting
  • Cracked home foundations
  • Sinkholes
  • Roads that buckle and require repairs every 2 years

As permafrost warms, methane, a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide, is bubbling up beneath Arctic lakes, and pock-marked landscapes known as thermokarst formations are transforming the tundra. Methane and other greenhouse gases are likely escaping from many of these locations too, especially small lakes.

  • Romanovsky is skeptical of doomsday predictions of a runaway methane increase as some have proposed, but he says more methane is being released now compared to a few decades ago.

The outlook: Although the Trump administration is seeking to speed up oil and gas drilling in northern Alaska, rapid climate change may actually serve as a hinderance for new industrial development.

  • The new study found 45% of the globally important oil and natural gas production fields in the Russian Arctic are located in areas with high permafrost melt hazard potential by 2050.
  • "If no adaptation measures are used, extraction and delivery of natural resources (e.g., oil and gas) may be jeopardized," Hjort told Axios, adding that this scenario is unlikely, since companies already take pains to adapt to the existence of permafrost.

Go deeper: Rapid global warming is bringing unprecedented changes to Arctic

2. Mapping the brain to see how diseases start

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

By examining brain tissues and developing an AI that scours a huge and improved gene database, research is narrowing in on the genes underlying serious psychiatric disorders, a consortium of scientists announced Thursday, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: Ultimately, they want to develop more targeted drugs or other treatments by determining how psychiatric disorders form in the brain. The results from the consortium of 15 research institutions are considered a "big step" toward reaching that ultimate goal, particularly for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism, some experts tell Axios.

Background: It's now known there are hundreds of genes in the brain that can play a role in boosting the risk factors for these psychiatric disorders — but how the disorders develop on a molecular level, and what role those variations in genes play, is not known.

What they did: The 10 studies looked at about 2,000 individual brain samples — both tissues and single cells.

  • Several documented the various stages of brain development across the human life span, including the rarely examined stage of a fetal brain.
  • Researchers developed deep-learning algorithms to process the huge amount of data and predict genetic risk for disorders.

The deep-learning model that examined and integrated the huge amount of data to predict risk factors for disorders was lauded by several sources as an important advance.

  • It was 75% successful in estimating the risk factors, which is significantly higher than current methods, according to Yale's Mark Gerstein, who is an author of several of the studies.
  • "It actually told us which pathways and genes and whatnot were implicated in this particular disorder," Gerstein tells Axios, adding that it's obviously not ready for clinical use yet.

The big picture: A lot of new research is expected to flow from these findings."The biggest impact will be [the data] as a scientific resource for the whole community," Stanford University's Michael Snyder, who was not part of these studies, tells Axios.

Go deeper: Read the entire post.

3. Hunting for the cause of AFM
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Data: CDC; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

Health officials are dedicating resources toward investigating the polio-like illness acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) not only because it's a devastating illness but also because they're concerned it could develop into something affecting larger numbers of people, an expert at Children's National Health System tells Eileen.

Why it matters: AFM has infected and sometimes partially paralyzed a small but growing number of U.S. children. Cases of AFM have reached a record high in the U.S., with 158 confirmed in 36 states this year so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the illness remains rare and, for this reason, some question the public resources dedicated to it.

  • "There's some concern that it could evolve to something larger" due to its similarity to polio, says Roberta DeBiasi, CNHS chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases.

The biggest question is what is causing the illness. The CDC is looking into 3 main tracts: a viral infection of motor neurons involved in the body's movement, an indirect infection that leads to an immune response affecting the motor neurons, and genetic factors that may increase a patient's susceptibility to the illness.

  • The CDC's task force, which presented its initial findings last week, says enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) remains the "leading hypothesis for virus trigger" despite the fact that a majority of cases tested negative for the virus in respiratory specimens and only 1 patient had it in their spinal fluid.

What we know:

  • Patients are young (2–12 years old) and tend to be male (61%) compared to female (39%).
  • 87% have a respiratory illness or low-grade fever shortly before the limb weakness suddenly strikes.
  • The limb weakness and paralysis appear to strike more quickly than other paralyzing illnesses, and poliovirus has been ruled out.
  • The cases so far have been spiking every other year.

Go deeper: Read the entire post.

4. Axios stories worthy of your time

This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 2 goes interstellar: NASA's probe reached interstellar space at about 11 billion miles from Earth, making it the only second human-made object to do so, according to the space agency. Unlike Voyager 1, it has done so with its instruments intact, sending scientists on Earth valuable data.

Big bucks for quantum computing: High-profile companies like Goldman-Sachs are pouring money into quantum computing, making a bet that its business applications will expand dramatically in coming years, Kaveh Waddell reports.

Dire climate warming may have been too optimistic: Prominent climate scientists published a paper arguing the UN IPCC's recent report may be underestimating the amount of warming we'll see in the next 2 decades, Ben Geman reports.

Space milestone: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic successfully launched its VSS Unity spacecraft to the edge of space, just beyond 50 miles above the surface of the Earth, placing it closer to its goal of commercial space tourism, Shannon Vavra writes.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Filming the coral bleaching at Lizard Island in March 2016. Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Exploration: In the next two weeks, scientists plan to send a remotely operated vehicle through a 3,000-foot hole in the Antarctic ice sheet to enter a subglacial lake for the first time, Douglas Fox writes for Nature.

Mars 2020: Scientists are studying coastal Iceland for clues about what conditions may have been on the Red Planet about 3 billion years ago. By studying volcanic Iceland's organisms, researchers hope to learn what the Mars rover should be looking for in its search for life, Ramin Skibba writes for Hakai Magazine.

Guarded optimism on coral reefs: Back-to-back coral bleaching events in part of Australia's Great Barrier Reef showed the ability of some coral species to tolerate higher heat exposures, raising hopes that increasing ocean temperatures might not doom these havens of biodiversity, Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for the New York Times.

6. Something wondrous
Video showing a wolf hunting freshwater fish at night. Credit: Voyageurs Wolf Project

Wolves are known for their ability to adapt to their environment and adjust their diets accordingly. They consume everything from small mammals to spawning salmon in Alaska. But they have not been known to freshwater fish, until now.

A pack of wolves was recently observed hunting freshwater fish. At night. Successfully.

Why it matters: The new research, published in the journal Mammalian Biology, claims this is the first recorded instance of wolves using fish as a seasonal food source outside of a coastal marine environment.

What they did: The researchers used GPS collars to collect location data from more than seven packs of wolves every 20 minutes, allowing them to determine the wolves' territory and predation behaviors.

  • In spring of 2017, wolves in the Bowman Bay pack (one of the 7 packs tracked) spent between 43–63% of their time hunting fish around this accessible creek. The others did not turn to fish as a staple of their diet that month.
  • The same behavior was spotted in early spring 2018, which prompted the researchers to put out camera traps as a way to gather evidence. That's how they caught footage of wolves hunting freshwater fish at night.

What they're saying: “The wolves are standing next to the creek in the dark, just listening or looking,” researcher Tom Gable from the University of Minnesota said. “You can see the wolves abruptly head to the water several times after hearing a splash — they learned what a fish splashing in the creek sounds like and they know that it means food. Incredible.”

Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading and see you next Thursday!