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Cloud forest in Monteverde Biological Reserve, Costa Rica. Photo: Avalon/UIG via Getty Images
Some of the most ethereal, unique ecosystems in the world are enshrouded in clouds. The fate of Earth's cloud forests, and the specialized species they harbor, is a concern facing climate scientists and conservationists around the world.
The big picture: Tropical montane cloud forests and páramo, which are alpine ecosystems that occur above the tropical cloud forests between about 11 degrees north and 9 degrees south latitude, are losing the mist that defines them as the planet's climate changes largely due to human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Background: Previous studies have shown that there is a risk that cloud forests will see less frequent cloud immersion, thereby depriving moisture-adapted vertebrate and vegetation species of a vital water source.
Where and how significantly cloud immersion frequency and intensity will change has been unknown.
Details: In a comprehensive new study published in PLOS One, scientists found that cloud forests and páramo are likely to see marked contraction and drying during the next several decades.
What they did: The researchers produced detailed maps of cloud forest ecosystems and páramo and modeled thresholds for cloud forest minimum elevation and other parameters.
What they found: The study finds that in about 25–45 years, 70%–86% of páramo are likely to be drier or "be subject to tree invasion."
The bottom line: According to lead author Eileen Helmer of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, the study breaks new ground in showing the global extent of cloud immersion impacts.
But, but, but: The news for cloud forests is not all grim, Helmer says. "We found that the land with a cloud forest climate in most regions is largely forested, which may help species persist in the face of climate change," she said, noting that governments could take steps to protect intact cloud forests from future deforestation.
This composite image shows an exoplanet (the red spot) orbiting the brown dwarf 2M1207. This is the first exoplanet directly imaged. Image: NASA/JPL
Figuring out whether a planet is habitable will take more than just understanding its orbit. According to a new study in the journal Science, scientists will also need to study a world’s atmosphere, magnetic field and even geological composition in order to really know if it’s capable of hosting life, reports Axios' Miriam Kramer.
The big picture: Researchers have been hunting for habitable exoplanets using space and ground-based telescopes for years, but assessing whether a world can support life or not is difficult.
Details: While understanding an exoplanet’s atmosphere is a good way to start a hunt for life, scientists will also need to learn more about a planet’s composition to see if it’s Earth-like.
Even plate tectonics have bearing on habitability because the cycling of a planet’s crust helps control its climate, the study notes.
“By having these different variables, we can say this is the most likely — of all the planets that have been found — this one is the most likely to be habitable or to be most Earth-like,” study co-author Anat Shahar of the Carnegie Institution for Science told Axios.
What’s next? Although scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets so far, very few of them are thought to be potentially habitable. However, as more powerful telescopes come online, researchers should gain a better understanding of what secrets these planets may be hiding.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Infectious disease experts tell Axios they agree with a dire scenario painted in a new UN report saying that, if nothing changes, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) could be "catastrophic" in its economic and death toll, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.
Threat level, per the report: By 2050, AMR could kill 10 million people per year, in its worst-case scenario. Annual economic damage could be comparable to the 2008–09 financial crisis.
What they're saying: Experts tell Axios that action must be taken or the grim scenario will come true.
"Unfortunately, I think if we don't do anything differently, the estimates are absolutely realistic. ... Like global warming, the longer we delay action, the worse it's going to get."— Amy Mathers, director, The Sink Lab at the University of Virginia
By the numbers: Currently, at least 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases, including 230,000 people from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, per the UN.
Common diseases — like respiratory infections, STDs and urinary tract infections — are increasingly untreatable as the pathogens develop resistance to current medications.
What needs to be done: Experts say the mindset around antibiotics usage needs to change, as do incentives for companies to develop new antibiotics.
Mathers says the traditional drug manufacturing process doesn't work for public companies because investors prefer drugs that need to be taken regularly.
But, but, but: Some progress has been made.
The bottom line: Action must be taken to avoid a catastrophic future.
The Virgo observatory that hunts for evidence of gravitational waves. Image: The Virgo collaboration/CCO
Scientists hunting for gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space and time sent out by cataclysmic collisions — have had a busy month, writes Miriam.
The LIGO and Virgo observatories tasked with detecting these waves began their newest observing run on April 1, and they've already found evidence of 5 possible gravitational wave signals.
The big question: By detecting these gravitational waves on Earth, scientists can work backward to find out more about what created those ripples, giving us new insights into some of the most extreme objects in the universe.
“The entire astrophysics community is very excited that we’ve already seen 5 candidate events in four weeks,” LIGO astrophysicist Jess McIver said during a press conference Thursday.
Details: Three of the gravitational wave signals are thought to be from two merging black holes, with the fourth believed to have been emitted by colliding neutron stars. The fifth, and perhaps most exciting, seems to be from the merger of a black hole and a neutron star.
All five signals still need to be confirmed through follow-up analysis.
How it works: LIGO and Virgo are able to detect these gravitational waves through very precise instrumentation. When a gravitational wave passes through Earth’s part of space, every atom warps ever so slightly.
What’s next? Unlike earlier observing campaigns, the two observatories have started releasing their detections in real time, allowing other observatories to make follow-up observations.
Tropical Cyclone Fani approaching India, May 2. Image: NOAA
Skimming Saturn's rings (Miriam Kramer)
The origin story behind cosmic phenomenon STEVE (Miriam Kramer)
Deepfakes for good (Kaveh Waddell)
From Apples to Popcorn, Climate Change Is Altering the Foods America Grows (Kim Severson, New York Times)
Biggest Denisovan fossil yet spills ancient human’s secrets (Matthew Warren, Nature News)
Fossil of 85-foot blue whale is largest ever discovered (Tim Vernimmen, National Geographic)
Indonesia plans to move its capital out of Jakarta, a city that's sinking (Merrit Kennedy, NPR)
The Hubble Legacy Field, showing results of 16 years of observations. Image: NASA/ESA/STScI
In 1995, astronomers directed the Hubble Space Telescope to stare at one piece of the sky for 1 million seconds.
Why it matters: This resulted in images showing galaxies that had never been seen before, some of which are so far away that it's taken billions of years for light from them to reach us. The image this led to is called the Hubble Deep Field, and at the time it was the farthest peek into the universe on record.
Subsequent deep-field surveys have yielded views of galaxies even farther away, particularly as updated cameras have added to Hubble's capabilities.
"These surveys provided astronomers with a huge scrapbook of images, showing how, following the big bang, galaxies built themselves up over time to become the large, majestic assemblages seen today in the nearby universe," NASA wrote in a statement about the deep-field surveys.
What's new: On May 2, astronomers released a new deep-field image that cobbles together exposures from several of the previous galaxy hunts.
Thanks so much for reading! See you back here next week.