Aug 2, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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Yesterday, I hosted a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" on climate science and climate journalism. Check it out.

1 big thing: Scientists sound new heat warnings

A child playing in a fountain amid a heatwave in Binzhou, eastern China, in 2015. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Heat waves in the North China Plain — China's breadbasket — are predicted to become so severe, they would "limit habitability in the most populous region of the most populous country on Earth," a new study finds.

The big picture: Such heat waves could both threaten lives and dampen economic output in the region, where 400 million people live. Earlier studies along with a separate new analysis released Thursday found the potential emergence of extreme heat waves — from China to West Africa to South Asia — that are far worse than those currently experienced.

Key findings: Like the previous two studies by this MIT team, which focused on the Persian Gulf region and South Asia, the researchers found that given the current pace of greenhouse gas emissions, extreme heat waves are likely to emerge in the agricultural region of the North China Plain between 2070 and 2100. (In the Gulf, the most severe heat is projected to occur over the Gulf waters, rather than land.)

  • The North China Plain is one of the most-threatened areas of the globe due to heat extremes, the study found.
  • The soil there, near the Yellow, Huai and Hai rivers, is ideal for agriculture. Irrigation tends to lower air temperatures, but increase evaporation — with the net effect of making heat waves more intense and intolerable for the human body.

How they did it: Elfatih Eltahir and co-author Suchil Kang of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology focused on wet bulb temperatures — measures of the amount of water vapor in the air that are taken by wrapping a wet cloth around the bulb (or sensor) of a thermometer, to let evaporation of water cool the bulb.

  • At 100% humidity, with no evaporation possible, the wet bulb temperature equals the actual temperature.
  • The study combines wet bulb temperatures with air temperatures to arrive at a thermal index that corresponds to how the human body responds to heat.
  • The researchers ran a group of regional climate models to simulate changes to this thermal index across the North China Plain region. They looked at the climate during the past 30 years, and used the models that produced the closest matches to reality in order to project future climate in this area.

What it means: As global temperatures increase, the researchers predict heat waves will become far less tolerable as the combination of air temperatures and humidity levels causes the maximum wet bulb temperature to reach or even exceed 35°C, or 95°F.

"Climate change could bring a significant risk of deadly heat waves, heat waves that are very severe, heat waves that touch on livability for humans."
— Elfatih Eltahir, MIT

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

2. Search for life on other planets

Artist's concept that shows the Pluto system from the surface of one of its smaller moons. Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

A team of U.K.-based scientists have identified a group of planets outside our solar system with similar chemical conditions that likely led to the formation of life on Earth, Axios' Lauren Meier reports.

The big picture: The scientists found a collection of planets with the potential to host water that also have stars positioned in a way that could provide ideal conditions of both light and temperature needed to set off the necessary chemical reactions to form life.

Why it matters: The new study, published this week in the journal Science Advances, represents one of several emerging approaches to narrowing down the list of candidate planets that could host life.

  • According to past research, life emerges from molecular precursors that include elements like lipids and amino acids that can go on to form DNA and RNA — necessary components to comprise life forms.
  • However, such molecules can only emerge through specific conditions, including being exposed to ultraviolet light, the study found.

What they did: With the goal of discovering which conditions are most important for developing the chemical building blocks to forming life, the scientists tried to determine the speed at which the building blocks of life form through combinations of water, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfite ions. They varied the exposure to ultraviolet light (UV) as well as temperatures.

What they found: The researchers said exposure to UV light kickstarted the chemical reactions necessary to form life, while the experiments run in the absence of such radiation could not form such compounds.

  • Upon discovering the ideal conditions of both light and temperature that cause RNA to form, the scientists identified the area around stars that display such conditions: the "abiogenesis zones."

Read more of Lauren's story here.

3. How this year's wildfire season stacks up
Expand chart
Data: National Interagency Coordination Center; Note: Cumulative counts are sometimes revised, causing short-lived spikes or dips in the number of acres burned; Chart: Axios Visuals

More than 4.8 million acres have been torched by wildfires so far this year across the U.S., according to data from the National Interagency Coordination Center — roughly 1 million acres more than the 10-year average of acres burned by this point in the year. California has been particularly hard hit.

Driving the news: California's deadly Carr Fire has burned more than 125,842 acres so far and claimed at least 6 lives. It was only 35% contained as of Thursday afternoon. It's already on the state's top 10 lists for both its size and destructiveness, having burned 1,060 homes as well as hundreds of other structures.

California's fire siege has resulted from a combination of one of the state's hottest months on record, combined with extraordinarily dry vegetation along with frequent bouts of strong winds.

Go deeper:

4. Axios stories worth your time

Deciphering chromosomes: Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, researchers in two studies squeezed 16 chromosomes into 1 or 2, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports. The experiment helps scientists gather knowledge towards a long-term goal of addressing faulty chromosomes that can trigger miscarriages and some genetic disorders.

Record heat: Death Valley, Calif., set a record for the hottest month in U.S. history — and quite likely global history as well. The average temperature at the Furnace Creek observing station was 108.1°F, which beat the old record set just last year in the same location by about a half-a-degree Fahrenheit.

30,000 words on global warming: The New York Times devotes its entire magazine this weekend to one story on global warming. While many are lauding the paper for focusing on this issue so intensely, others are pointing out problems with the story, Henrietta Reily reports.

Science adviser named — finally: After a record wait, President Trump has nominated a science adviser. The choice has been met with relief and widespread support from the science community. Kelvin Droegemeier, a longtime severe weather researcher at the University of Oklahoma, has experience working in the federal science policy sphere.

CRISPR enzyme: Researchers say they've discovered the enzyme Cas12a may be more precise and safer than Cas9, in most cases, to use with the gene editing tool CRISPR because it discriminates more strongly against mismatches, Eileen reports.

5. Stories we're reading elsewhere

Fields Medal winners: Quanta Magazine profiled the 4 Fields Medal winners, including Italian mathematician Alessio Figalli. The profiles are engaging and surprising. For example, Figalli was once a classics student, yet he won the most prestigious prize in mathematics at age 34.

  • Related: Soon after being presented with the medal, University of Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkar had his medal stolen, NYT reports.

Intelligent Machines: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced its initial plan to spend $1.5 billion to overcome the limitations of Moore's Law and devise new approaches to creating more powerful computer chips and other hardware, MIT Technology Review reports.

Novel Parkinson's experiment: Doctors in Japan plan to implant neural cells from reprogrammed stem cells into the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease. The treatment is the third clinical application of that type of cell, called induced pluripotent stem cells, Nature News reports.

6. Something wondrous

Steam plumes rise as lava enters the Pacific Ocean, after flowing to the water from a Kilauea volcano fissure, on Hawaii's Big Island on May 20. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Big Island is getting bigger, thanks to lava flowing into the ocean from the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, Henrietta writes.

The big picture: U.S. Geological Survey geologist Janet Babb told Axios that since May, eruptions have created a "lava delta" spanning 825 acres, with between 50 and 150 cubic meters of lava entering the ocean every second. The volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983, but the recent rate is unprecedented —until May, the land added by lava totaled just 500 acres.

Go deeper: In a new report on the landmass additions, USGS explains that some lava deltas have a hard time solidifying and staying attached to land because there is a steep offshore slope. But this time, the area is far less steep, allowing the delta to expand and persist for longer.

Lava deltas are "notoriously unstable," Babb said, so the agency puts out a new map every day as the terrain continues to change. As topographic maps are updated (which happens less frequently), they will reflect the additions as well.

Alison Snyder