Nov 1, 2018

Axios Science

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1 big thing: The oceans are getting hotter, faster

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world's oceans have absorbed about 60% more heat during the past 25 years than previously estimated, according to a new study published in the journal Nature. The study takes advantage of a new method that can approximate the whole ocean temperature.

Why it matters: If the ocean is absorbing even more heat than observed, it suggests that future global warming will track on the upper end of projections — possibly as high as 5°C, or 9°F, by 2100 if emissions are not significantly curtailed.

The oceans are absorbing about 93% of the extra energy from increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

What they did: For the study, scientists led by Princeton University geochemist Laure Resplandy and Ralph Keeling from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography devised a new way of taking the global ocean temperature. It relies on precise atmospheric measurements of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Such oxygen measurements date back to 1991, whereas carbon dioxide measurements extend further back in time.

  • The scientists examined the combined amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air, which they term "atmospheric potential oxygen," or APO.
  • Both of these gases are less soluble in warmer water, and as the ocean warms, they are released into the air, which increases the APO.
  • This contrasts with other methods that depend on millions of observations from ocean sensors, including buoys and ship-based instruments, and have a considerable amount of uncertainty.

What they found: The amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted by human activities before putting the goals of limiting warming to under 2℃, or 3.6℉, out of reach is about 25% less than what was previously calculated

What they're saying: Keeling told Axios the results "imply that there’s likely to be more warming in the future” as the oceans eventually transfer extra heat into the atmosphere, resulting in accelerated global warming and stronger storms that can deliver heavier precipitation.

  • Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who was not involved in the new study, said the calculations have implications because the oceans are "the main memory of the climate system (along with ice loss)."
  • Pieter Tans, who closely tracks the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere for NOAA and was not involved in the new study, cautioned that the new estimate needs to be replicated by other studies, but says it is valuable new work.
"In case the larger estimate of ocean heat uptake turns out to be true, adaptation to, and mitigation of, our changing climate would become more urgent."
— Pieter Tans, NOAA
2. About that supermassive black hole in our galaxy

The rich star clouds in the constellation Sagittarius looking in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Image: ESO and Digitized Sky Survey

New evidence provides more confidence that a supermassive black hole lurks at the center of the Milky Way galaxy and begins to describe the inner workings of this mysterious feature.

Details: The black hole, known as Sagittarius A*, is thought to have about 4 million solar masses — or a mass about 1.3 trillion times that of Earth.

Using data from the hyper-sensitive GRAVITY instrument on the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile, researchers studied flares of infrared radiation at the edge of SagA*.

  • The 3 observed flares, scientists concluded, likely come from gases moving around the edge of the dense black hole at relativistic speeds of up to 30% of the speed of light.
  • These gases most likely accelerated due to magnetic forces and rotated along the innermost stable orbit. Should freely orbiting objects come any closer, they would be consumed by the black hole.
  • This marks the first time material has been viewed so close to a black hole without being swallowed by it.

What they're saying: Study co-author Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, said the new research confirms scientists' suspicions about Sagitarius A* being a supermassive black hole. "The result is a resounding confirmation of the massive black hole paradigm," he said in a statement.

Thibaut Paumard, a researcher on this project from CNRS in Paris, said the results suggest that other models about how materials behave around such features may not be accurate, since no jets or other hypothesized phenomena were observed.

  • Study co-author Oliver Pfuhl told Axios that the new research provides a rare peak into how black holes feed. The flares originated in an area surrounding the black hole, “Where material can still maintain its position before it's sort of free-falling into the black hole,” he said.

What's next: Pfuhl said further observations of the rapidly moving hot spots could be used to test Einstein's theory of general relativity and determine the parameters of black holes, such as getting a better idea of their spin and magnetic fields. The answers to these questions will affect how material is sucked, or accreted, into them — and ultimately how our galaxy, and others, began and may end.

3. Novel antibody study could lead to near-universal flu protection

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A team of scientists took a novel approach to the problem of protecting people against both A and B types of flu viruses. They used llama antibodies to create a nasal spray that would block the viruses before they can take hold in the body, according to a preclinical mouse study published in Science on Thursday.

Why it matters: This approach could bring us closer to developing a universal flu vaccine before the next influenza pandemic hits — which, if we're not prepared, would likely kill tens of millions globally. While this study is not on a vaccine per se, it aims to provide similar "near universal" protection against multiple influenza viruses, reports Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly.

What they did: The team immunized llamas with 3 different influenza viruses plus viral surface proteins, called hemagglutinin, from 2 other flu strains.

  • Llamas were chosen because their antibodies have unique properties beneficial for drug development, like their small size and ability to bind to multiple targeted epitopes.
  • They then harvested 4 antibodies that neutralized many flu strains (both A and B) from the llamas.
  • They linked parts of the antibodies into a single molecule that was spliced into a neutralized virus that's sometimes used in gene therapy to disseminate the material.

What they found: In lab cultures, the antibody serum protected against 60 different flu strains. When given to mice, either via an intranasal spray or direct infusion, the mice showed "significantly higher survival rates" than untreated rodents.

"The multi-domain antibodies were able to neutralize all 60 human and avian influenza viruses that were tested except for one H12 virus. Influenza H12 viruses are avian influenza viruses, which so far have not been transmitted to humans."
Study authors Joost Kolkman of Janssen Infectious Diseases and Ian Wilson of Scripps Research

Between the lines: William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the study, points out that if further testing doesn't alter the serum or distribution, the serum would differ from a vaccine in that the antibodies would directly enter humans' nasal mucus membranes, "so that [the flu virus] never gets a foothold and therefore gives more protection."

What they're saying: Multiple experts tell Axios this is an exciting new approach that could eventually lead to the development of the "holy grail," which is an immunization against a broad spectrum of flu viruses to combat a future pandemic.

4. Axios stories worthy of your time

Calving front of the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica, seen in 2016. Credit: NASA/IceBridge.

A UC Berkeley-led research team was awarded a patent Tuesday for unique RNA guides that work with the Cas9 protein to target and cut genes via the gene-editing tool CRISPR, Eileen writes.

A huge Antarctic iceberg about 5 times the size of Manhattan broke off Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier, continuing that glacier's retreat and bringing up sea level rise concerns.

93% of children worldwide are breathing unhealthy air, writes Shannon Vavra, detailing findings from an authoritative new report from the WHO.

Climate change is redrawing maps, from plant hardiness zones to the boundaries of the tropics and main desert regions, Mike Allen and I write.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's right-wing president-elect, advocates policies that deeply worry environmentalists, who fear he will accelerate deforestation in the Amazon. This could have big consequences for global warming, Diego Rodriguez reports.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

A couple of tourists walk in 'Piazza San Marco' on October 29, 2018 in Venice, Italy. Photo: Stefano Mazzola/Awakening/Getty Images.

A fierce storm brought the highest tide to Venice in a decade, flooding 70% of the low-lying, canal-lined city and threatening historic sites. A long-delayed sea wall project known as Mose could've stopped the flooding, the NYT reports.

Mountain birds in Peru are climbing higher to stay within their optimal climate range, Christina Larson of AP writes. The story describes species' changes seen in 1985 and 2017 as an "escalator to extinction," since eventually the birds will run out of room.

Electrical stimulation helped 3 people with spinal-cord injuries to regain control over their leg muscles and improve their walking, Matthew Warren reports for Nature News. The story makes clear that the technique is in its early stages.

Scientists at MIT and Carnegie Mellon University are working to realign the compounds within lithium ion batteries to develop units that could power electric aircraft, reports James Temple for Tech Review.

6. Something wondrous: So long, Kepler. Thanks for the planets.

This illustration depicts NASA's exoplanet hunter, the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

NASA officially retired its Kepler Space Telescope on Oct. 30 after it ran out of fuel, putting an end to more than 9 years hunting for planets in deep space.

Why it matters: This mission revolutionized our understanding of our own place in the universe, leading to the realization that planets and solar systems are far more common than once thought.

In fact, based on Kepler's findings, 20–50% of stars in the sky likely have small planets in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could be found on the surface.

Kepler by the numbers:

2,681: Number of confirmed planets discovered using Kepler, as of Oct. 24, 2018.

61: Supernovae documented.

530,506: Number of stars observed.

70%: Percentage of known exoplanets that were discovered using Kepler.

Details: Jessie Dotson, a Kepler project scientist at the Ames Observatory, told Axios that Kepler's findings have changed her view of the night sky. "Planets are ubiquitous, planets are diverse,” she said. “Planets are found around a wide variety of stars”

“I think you can argue this is another step on the Copernican revolution,” with Earth no longer being regarded as the center of the solar system, she said in an interview.

What's next: Kepler may not be able to gather new data anymore, but the information it's relayed to the ground will keep new discoveries coming for at least a decade, Dotson says. Such discoveries will be aided by machine-learning algorithms that will make the hunt for exoplanets easier, since often scientists are searching for very small differences in light from a star as a planet passes in front of it.

“The science doesn’t end when the spacecraft ends,” she said.

Meanwhile, NASA has already launched a new planet-hunting spacecraft known as TESS, and further planetary discoveries are expected when the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope is launched sometime in the next several years.

Go deeper: All the planets we've found in the Milky Way