Jun 27, 2019

Axios Science

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Situational awareness: NASA announced the agency is planning to launch a spacecraft to Saturn's moon, Titan, in 2026 in search of details about the alien world’s surface and lakes.

We're taking a break for July 4th next week. Have a great holiday if you're celebrating!

1 big thing: An aquifer under the sea

Wind creates waves on the surface of the Gulf of Maine. Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Researchers have for the first time mapped a freshwater aquifer under the ocean, suggesting it and other similar systems could be a new source of water.

  • The newly-mapped aquifer is located off the East Coast, stretching from near Martha's Vineyard to the waters off Long Island and New Jersey.

The big picture: Millions of people face greater water stress from population growth, groundwater depletion and climate change. While the water described in the study, published in Scientific Reports, would need to be desalinized before consumption, it would not require the energy-intensive process currently undertaken in some countries, such as Israel.

What they did: The researchers used new electromagnetic methods typically employed for mapping offshore oil and gas resources.

  • They deployed receivers to the seafloor to measure the electromagnetic fields below, and also towed a device that emitted electromagnetic pulses and recorded the seafloor's responses to them.
  • Because saltwater is a better conductor of electromagnetic waves compared to freshwater, the aquifer showed up as a clear band of low conductance.

What they found: an aquifer system located within porous rock formations extending from the shoreline to about 50 miles off the coast of both survey locations.

  • The researchers note it may extend well beyond the study region, and the aquifer could be one that "rivals the largest onshore aquifers."
  • The aquifer isn't a trapped underground lake that can simply be tapped into like a straw, says lead author Chloe Gustafson, also of Columbia University. "It's more like a water-soaked sponge," she says.
  • This aquifer spans nearly 220 miles of the Atlantic Coast from end to end, and may hold at least 670 cubic miles of low-salinity groundwater.

The backstory: It's thought the groundwater originated during the end of the last glaciation, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower and mile-thick ice sheets retreated.

  • The glacial runoff formed offshore deltas and eventually trapped pockets of water underneath them.
  • In a surprising finding, the researchers say the aquifer is also likely receiving some fresh water from the land via subterranean runoff, which raises the possibility it may be recharged over time.

Between the lines: A 2013 study found freshwater aquifers likely are present in Outer Continental Shelf regions of every continent. That finding combined with the new results could spur more surveys to search for tappable offshore groundwater reserves.

  • However, like groundwater on land, this water should be treated more like a savings account that can be quickly depleted.
  • Also, because the water lies within porous rocks, the geological consequences of pumping it out would need to be studied.

The bottom line: “The big thing that we want people to know is that this isn’t just an isolated incident off the coast of New Jersey and Martha's Vineyard,” Gustafson says.

2. Tracing a Fast Radio Burst

A view from CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder radio telescope antenna 29. Photo: CSIRO/Alex Cherney

For the first time, scientists have traced the origin of a non-repeating Fast Radio Burst (FRB), Axios’ Miriam Kramer reports.

Why it matters: The origin of FRBs — extreme and mysterious pulses of radio waves from outside our galaxy — has been a long-standing mystery in astrophysics that the new study in the journal Science moves the field closer to solving.

  • “[An FRB] lasts about a millisecond, so you click your fingers, and you miss it,” lead author Keith Bannister of CSIRO told Axios.

What they found: A powerful radio telescope allowed the astronomers to trace an FRB detected in 2018 to a particular part of its host galaxy more than 4 billion light-years away from our own.

Context: Scientists have plenty of ideas about what might be causing these FRBs, but none of the explanations are perfect.

  • “There are tens of models out there in the literature with the burst sources ranging from really massive black holes at the centers of galaxies to highly magnetized neutron stars,” McGill University’s Pragya Chawla told Axios.

But, but, but: FRBs can be either a single radio wave pulse or repeating bursts. Scientists traced the origin of a repeating FRB in 2017, but that galaxy looks very different from the galaxy that hosted this transient FRB.

  • The repeating FRB came from a much less massive galaxy that was bursting with star formation, unlike the single FRB detailed in the new study.
  • “The study hints at repeating and non-repeating FRBs having different origins or that FRBs could be found in widely varying local environments and galaxies,” Chawla, who wasn’t affiliated with the new research, said. “Too early to say which one of those is true, but I definitely found myself thinking hard about both those possibilities.”
3. PTSD researchers seek breakthrough treatments

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Post-traumatic stress disorder is proving to be an elusive condition to treat, but researchers are increasingly chipping away at developing new and better interventions, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: PTSD is estimated to affect 7 or 8 people out of every 100, and the World Health Organization recently reported more than 1 out of 5 people who've been in conflict settings face mental disorders, including PTSD — a greater number than originally expected.

Background: PTSD is characterized by intrusive symptoms that can include frequent flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of reminders, hyperarousal or over-vigilance, and extended negative thinking, Wayne State University's Arash Javanbakht tells Axios.

  • It's often accompanied by depression, anxiety and sometimes suicidal thoughts.
  • Not everyone who experiences the same traumatic event ends up having PTSD, which has led researchers to examine whether there is a genetic risk for the disorder.

Brain scans have linked PTSD to brain shrinkage and lesions, Javanbakht says, although he adds scans aren't used for clinical diagnosis.

The latest: As Axios noted in its recent neuroscience deep dive, psychologists are examining the brain's forgetting strategies to see if they can be used to help people diminish the memories that cause trauma — or at least associate them with more positive feelings.

  • Javanbakh tells Axios his clinic has been "very successful" in treating spider phobias with AR and telepsychiatry. While it's early days (they are developing a proof of concept), he believes this will also apply to people with PTSD.
  • Some apps are popping up, too. NightWare, which is enrolling people in randomized clinical trials after receiving FDA's Breakthrough Status designation, is an Apple Watch app that would vibrate to wake up someone from nightmares.
  • "There's interest in [apps] but not a lot of hard data showing the effectiveness of these," says Franklin Schneier, special lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Doctors are looking for new medications. Some research has targeted the possible use of ketamine or similar drugs, but the problem seems to be that its fix is temporary, it could be addictive and has other side effects, he says.

Read the rest of Eileen's story here.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Arctic fox in summer coat, Svalbard, Norway. Photo: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Why One Arctic Fox Took the Longest Migration in the Species’ History (Adam Popescu, One Zero)

One Percent of North Atlantic Right Whales Have Died This Month (Ed Yong, The Atlantic)

The doctor who beat Ebola — and inspires other survivors to care for the sick (Amy Maxmen, Nature News)

The Hidden Light Show Below (Louise Murray, Hakai Magazine)

6. Something wondrous: KABOOM!

The eruption of Mt. Raikoke as seen from the International Space Station on June 22, 2019. Credit: NASA

After nearly a century of slumber, the Raikoke Volcano roared to life on June 22.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station were in a perfect position to capture the eruption on an island off Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. It sent ash and sulfur dioxide aerosols up into the stratosphere, where they can scatter incoming sunlight and influence the planet's climate slightly.

  • Satellites were also able to see the plume of ash and gases as it was sucked into a storm system over the North Pacific Ocean.
  • The flat portion at the top of the ash cloud is known as the "umbrella region" — the location where the plume stops rising as it is no longer lighter than surrounding air.
  • The sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere wrapped around the North Pacific storm system, eventually circulating hundreds of miles away from the volcano.

Large volcanic eruptions, particularly ones near the tropics, have in the past been linked to short-lived periods of global cooling. This most recently occurred with the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines.

  • However, that eruption lofted far more sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere than Raikoke, and did so near the equator, where it may have had an even more pronounced effect on global average surface temperatures.

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