Where climate change will hit the U.S. hardest - Axios
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Where climate change will hit the U.S. hardest

Left unmitigated, rising temperatures from climate change will increase inequality and mortality rates in the U.S. by the end of the 21st century, a team of economists and climate scientists warn in a study published today. It's the first to project the impacts of climate change on individual counties in the U.S. Many of those predicted to be hit hardest are in fast-growing Arizona, Texas, and Florida.


Data: Hsiang, Kopp, Jina, Rising, et al. (2017); Map: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Local differences: If steps are not taken to lessen the rate of warming from climate change, counties in the South and lower Midwest — which on average tend to already be poorer and warmer — may lose as much as 20% of their income and may experience higher mortality rates. However, areas of the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region and New England — which on average tend to be wealthier and cooler — could benefit economically from the change and see lower mortality rates.

A climate impact map by county is available here.

"The poorest 10% of counties stand to lose over 10% of their county GDP, while many richer counties will see climate-driven boosts." — study author James Rising of UC Berkeley.

Dire warning: The researchers predict mortality will increase by 5.4 deaths per 100,000 people for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature. "We show there are going to be as many additional deaths from climate change as there are car crashes, and possibly more. Of the sectors we looked at, the greatest costs by far to society are going to come from those additional deaths," Rising told Axios. But it would vary by region: in cold northern counties, warming reduces mortality whereas in southern ones it could rise.

Nationwide, for every one degree Celsius temperature rise, the study predicts:

  • Gross domestic product will drop 1.2%
  • Agriculture average yields will decline by 9%
  • Electricity demand will rise by 5.3%
  • Total hours of labor supplied will drop — by 0.11% for low-risk workers (work mostly indoors) and 0.53% for high-risk workers (exposed to outdoor temperatures).
  • Violent crime will rise by roughly 0.88% nationally. Property crime (which tends to be lower in cold weather) will increase with warming but doesn't change once it reaches hot levels of temperature.
  • Coastal damage will be distributed unequally: acute impacts could be felt in eastern coastal states with low-lying cities. The rise of Middle Sea Levels alone raises expected economic damage to South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida in particular.
Outside perspective: One of the study authors said that unmitigated climate change may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in U.S. history. In response, Stanford University's Marshall Burke told Axios:
"Poor counties in the U.S. will be harder hit, mainly because they are already hot. Whether we should think of climate change as a "transfer" of wealth is less clear to me, though, and it is also less clear that even if we want to use "transfer" in the way they are using it, that this would be the biggest transfer in U.S. history. For instance, I think it's correct that the differential growth in incomes between the poorest 20% of U.S. household and the richest 1% has been a lot bigger over the last 20 years than the effects they find here."

What they did: The team used historical records of temperature effects on different sectors and 116 climate projections to price the real-world costs of higher temperatures, changing rainfall, rising seas, and intensifying hurricanes to 6 key economic factors: agriculture yield, crime rates, health, energy demand, labor supply, and coastal damage. The projections across all U.S. counties and a range of possible future climates are for four blocks of time between 2020 and the end of the 21st century that are compared to historical data from the period from 1989 to 2001.

"For the longest time when we talked about climate change it has been at the global level. One of the challenges is that it is hard to translate global stats to a local level," says UC Santa Barbara's Kyle Meng. "What's important about this work is that it put a lot of effort into summarizing the literature so we are able to actually tell what impacts will look like at particular locations in the U.S."

Limitations: The study doesn't account for technological adaptations that might mitigate the effects or the impact of migration on the population.

Added value: The team developed the Spatial Empirical Adaptive Global- to-Local Assessment System (SEAGLAS), which will be able to take in research across multiple fields and analyze in near-real time. "They've created a platform that researchers can update continuously so we can get real-time updates of our understanding of climate change, not just discrete ones every time a study is published," says Meng, who has collaborated with the team in the past but wasn't involved in the current study.

What's missing: "The main worry that I have — and this is clearly mentioned in the paper — is that they are missing some important sectors because impact estimates do not exist for these sectors. Morbidity in particular is probably the most important one, and this could mean they are substantially understating overall impacts," Burke added.

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Scientists find white dwarf star hurtling across the galaxy


Remnants of a supernova

0301627 / NASA

Scientists at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona have spotted a half-burnt white dwarf star hurtling across the galaxy. They think the unique star, described Thursday in the journal Science, was launched by an exploding supernova that didn't entirely destroy it. If confirmed, it would be the first direct evidence of these unique supernovae.

Why it matters: Recently, researchers discovered a type of dim supernova. These mini-novas are thought to be formed when a white dwarf partially explodes. If that is what sent this star flying, it could confirm that theory.

What happened: Once small or medium-mass stars (like our own sun, stop using hydrogen) they expand to red giants. Red giants normally fuse carbon, but if they don't have enough mass to do that, carbon and oxygen will build up in their cores and eventually the Earth-sized ultra-dense white dwarves are all of the star that remains.

Getting explosive: It's thought that white dwarf stars can only support so much mass because of their unique chemistry. Once they pass an upper mass limit, they can explode in a particular type of supernova (type 1a). Some scientists think another, dimmer type of supernova called a type 1ax starts the same way, but only ruptures part of the star. It's possible that's how LP 40-365 began its journey.

What they know: The unusual speed of LP 40-365 is the first clue: it's traveling really fast, fast enough that it could escape the gravitational pull of our galaxy. LP 40-365 is also fairly light, like part of it burned away in a supernova. Finally, the researchers looked at the chemical composition of the star and found that its atmosphere contained elements like aluminum and silicon, both of which scientists expect to show up in white dwarfs ejected by this type of galactic explosion.

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How the brain gets an itch

Credit: NICHD/S. Jeong

Scientists have traced how an "itch" in the body turns into a neural impulse to "scratch" it in the brain.

How they did it: Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences suppressed parts of the spinal cords in mice in order to stop scratching behavior that had been triggered by an itch sensation. Then, using a light-based system able to trace the mice's neural circuitry, they followed the itch-to-scratch mechanism from the spinal cord to a part of the brainstem called the parabrachial nucleus that is involved in registering pain and other sensations.

Why it matters: Scientists would like to understand how to turn off the command to scratch an itch because it could lead to a treatment for chronic scratching that damages the skin.

Open questions, per Science News.

  • The parabrachial nucleus is thought to be the first stop for processing the itch— where does it go from there?
  • The study was done in mice — does the same mechanism hold in humans?
  • There are different itches, like those from an allergy. Are they processed the same way by the brain?
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Plastic-eating plankton offer inspiration for cleaning up oceans

Katija et al., Science Advances 2017

Each day, larvacean plankton about the size of a pinkie finger construct 3-foot-wide mucus nets that serve as their fleeting homes. These structures filter seawater in massive amounts for bits of food for the plankton. In a study published yesterday, researchers report the zooplankton can capture plastic particles in the ocean's surface waters in the same way, ingest them and dispose of them on the seafloor.

Why it matters: These tiny organisms moving tiny particles of plastic could inspire technologies to clean up the sea.

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Adding water to whiskey really does bring more flavor

A new study, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, breaks down the chemistry behind a Scotch-drinking tradition: adding just a touch of water to the glass to bring out the flavor. They found adding water isn't a placebo-effect inducing wives tale. The reactions that occur after a little dilution really do add flavor.

  • The researchers conducted a series of simulations to see how water, ethanol, and a flavorful compound in whiskey called guaiacol would behave at different ethanol concentrations.
  • Guaiacol is somewhat hydrophobic, so it doesn't mix well with water. In stronger whiskey, the guaiacol is evenly mixed throughout the drink. But adding a bit of water causes the molecules to float to the top, where they can mix with the air and arrive at the drinkers' nose, creating a stronger flavor.
  • Yes, but: These researchers only looked at three of the hundreds of compounds in whiskey.
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Study finds probiotics can boost health for babies in developing world

Allison Joyce / AP

A new study found targeted probiotics — strains of beneficial bacteria — can reduce sepsis and other potentially life-threatening conditions in newborns, per The Atlantic.

  • The study: In the largest trial of its kind, 4,557 Indian newborns were treated for just one week with a specially-developed "synbiotic," a probiotic strain boosted with a sugar, designed to take root in the infant gut.
  • By the numbers: The researchers calculated that their probiotic strain should reduce the risk of sepsis, which kills hundreds of thousands of newborns each year, by 25-50%. The study also saw significant and "completely unexpected" reductions in bacterial infections and pneumonia in treated newborns.
  • Why it matters: The treatment is a cheap, easily replicated way to ensure the health of newborns and reduce the usage of antibiotics in the developing world. Indeed, the trial was so successful that it was stopped early because it was considered unethical to prevent children from receiving the treatment.
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Algae triggered the evolution of first animals on Earth

Associated Press

Scientists in Australia believe they've solved the mystery of when and how animals first appeared on Earth: it was linked to the rise of algae, preceded by 50 million years of huge glaciers pounding entire mountain ranges into powder.

"These large and nutritious organisms at the base of the food web provided the burst of energy required for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where increasingly large and complex animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth," said the lead researcher, Jochan Brocks.

Why it matters: Understanding the conditions that led to complex life here could help to determine whether and how live evolved elsewhere in the universe.

The back story: Scientists have known for awhile when complex forms of life began to show up on Earth, triggering evolutionary processes that culminated in the broad diversity of life we now see across the planet. It generally happened after a time known as "Snowball Earth" (a period when the planet was frozen beginning about 700 million years ago lasting 50 million years). What they didn't know was what triggered the evolution of complex life.

To answer that, a research team crushed ancient sedimentary rocks from central Australia into powder and then extracted molecules from organisms inside them in order to study them more closely.

What they found: Glaciers may have pounded mountain ranges into dust 650 million years ago, releasing nutrients into the oceans and creating perfect conditions for the rapid spread of algae. The researchers think the world's oceans then transitioned from a place dominated by bacteria to one inhabited by algae that served as food for more complex life. Eventually, some of that complex life slithered and crawled onto dry land. The rest is evolutionary history.

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There are 500K cholera cases in Yemen— and a global stockpile of at least a million vaccines

Associated Press

Earlier this week the WHO reported there have now been more than 500,000 cases of cholera in Yemen since April — making it one of the world's largest and fastest growing epidemics of the diarrheal disease to date.

Yes, but: In July, the organization made a surprising announcement that it wasn't moving forward with plans to begin administering half a million doses of cholera vaccine that were standing by for delivery, saying it would be ineffective given the security situation in the country and the epidemic's rapid escalation. Instead they intend to focus on improving sanitation and access to clean water and treatment.

Expert opinion: I spoke with cholera experts who have been involved in vaccination campaigns around the world. All noted they haven't worked in Yemen but from a global perspective are concerned the current plan in the country doesn't reflect what's known about the vaccine's effectiveness, and could perpetuate a belief that vaccinating people in the midst of an epidemic won't have an impact.

Two beliefs:

Once an epidemic is underway, vaccinating won't have an impact.

  • "It's misguided," says David Sack of Johns Hopkins who chairs a task force on oral cholera vaccine (which WHO participates in). "The fact that it wasn't given earlier isn't a reason to give it whenever you get it."
  • Andrew Azman, also from Hopkins but based in Malawi, points to the success of using the Shachol vaccine in the midst of a 2012 outbreak in Guinea to stop transmission.
  • Modeling by Azman and his colleagues found evidence that single doses of vaccine can afford some short-term protection against infection.
  • "Obviously you have the biggest impact if you vaccinate before an epidemic or at the earliest stages but you can still avert plenty of cases and plenty of deaths well after the peak of an epidemic."

It is only effective to vaccinate people who haven't been infected with the disease.

  • Louise Ivers, who has led Partners In Health's cholera vaccine efforts in Haiti, where a seven-year epidemic of cholera rages on, says there is no harm in vaccinating people who are already exposed to cholera or have natural immunity to it.
  • Its less efficient to vaccinate large numbers of people who have already been infected, but vaccinating some in the interest of protecting all those that are still at risk is worthwhile, Ivers said.
WHO spokesperson Gregory Härtl: "If you can "blanket" vaccine coverage before people are infected, they will not get infected, thus reducing the number of people who can spread the disease, whereas if you try to vaccinate once the cholera outbreak is in full swing, the number of people already infected and able to transmit the disease is already so great that the effectiveness of (scarce) vaccine is greatly diminished."
The vaccine: One of the least expensive and widely used — Shachol— is $1.85 per dose and requires limited health training to be delivered orally. A recent summary of studies found cholera vaccines are 76% effective in the field.
Ivers: "Water and sanitation have been the way we historically deal with cholera. But in Europe, thousands of people died over the decades it took us to build infrastructure... It's very hard to immediately deliver clean water to thousands or millions of people. Vaccine is the bridge. We know it works."

Sack: "I'm sympathetic to the difficulties in providing vaccine but the idea that they are going to improve sanitation when they can't give a simple oral vaccine flies in the face of reality... This is often thought of as a dichotomy — vaccines or sanitation. These are not opposing options. They need to be integrated."

The bottom line: Cholera is a global disease increasingly affecting people, especially those living in poverty and conflict, around the world. "It is 100% preventable and 100% treatable. No one should die of diarrhea," said Ivers.

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New blood test can detect early stage of some cancers: study

Cancer screening blood test Photo: Jacqueline Larma / AP

A spate of recent studies on liquid biopsies for cancer suggests researchers are making progress toward their ultimate goal of non-invasive diagnostics for evaluating how well a cancer treatment is working and early detection of the disease. However, the tests remain in early stages of development and still face doubts from some experts as to whether they can overcome issues like high rates of false negatives or positives.

"This is the wave of the future...The question is: How do we do it better? There are lots of directions it can move in," Eric Topol, genomics scientist and director of The Scripps Research Institute not involved in these studies, told Axios.

Early cancer detection study: A Johns Hopkins team announced Wednesday they have developed a blood test that spots tiny bits of DNA in the blood and, in the study, used them to accurately identified more than half of 138 people with relatively early stages of colorectal, breast, lung, and ovarian cancers.

Other recent research includes:

Johns Hopkins' study: The team said they developed a new approach that can distinguish between the DNA shed from tumors and other altered DNA that occurs naturally in humans but is often mistaken for cancer biomarkers. The technique uses "deep sequencing," which reads 30,000 times each chemical code in more than 80,930 base pairs of DNA fragments.

They used it to find and test DNA in the blood of 44 healthy patients and 200 cancer patients, and were able to detect an average of 62% of stage I and II cancers in the participants. Specifically, they found stage I and II cancers in: 71% of colorectal patients, 59% of breast cancer patients, 59% of lung cancer patients, and 68% of ovarian cancer patients. While it is difficult to find ovarian cancer patients in stage I or II (it tends to be found in stage III or beyond), the team said it canvassed various institutions to obtain the samples.

"To our knowledge this is the first reported study where such an approach has used these steps to achieve direct detection of early stage cancers," study author Jillian Phallen told Axios via email.

And, importantly: When the researchers analyzed the blood of the 44 healthy volunteers, their tests showed very little false positives (roughly one false positive per 3.3 million letters of DNA sequenced.)

Another perspective: Theodora Ross, an oncologist at the UT Southwestern Medical Center who did not participate in any of these studies, told Axios it is too early to believe the hype surrounding liquid biopsies. She says "theoretically" the tests could be a great tool that would allow doctors to avoid tissue biopsies and to detect cancers earlier but there has not yet been any large verification studies that prove these tests will work.

Yes, but: Ross said the test developed at Johns Hopkins appears to be more sensitive than some other liquid biopsies, which was confirmed by the lower error rate in testing the healthy subjects. If this could be validated by larger studies, Ross said, this would help ease one of her main concerns about liquid biopsies:

  • the prevalence of false positives (which may cause the patient to unnecessarily undergo severe radiation and chemo treatments or simply suffer with the knowledge of an incurable cancer longer)
  • false negatives (which may allow the cancer to grow undetected).

Going forward: Topol agreed validation studies are needed for these studies, with the hope that eventually scientists will achieve more accurate results with lower costs. "There is no perfect study...but this is a step in the right direction," he said.

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What we still don't know about the Sun

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

When the Moon dims the Sun for a few minutes next week, scientists will get a rare view of our star. Studying an eclipse seems almost quaint — we have telescopes that continuously observe the Sun and NASA is sending a probe to it next year. What further knowledge can we gain?

We asked four researchers what we still don't know about the Sun and what might be learned from next week's solar eclipse:

Expert Voices Featured

Chasing the eclipse with airborne telescopes

Our Expert Voices conversation about the 2017 solar eclipse.

One big question scientists still have about the Sun is why its corona, the outer atmosphere, is so hot — millions of degrees — while the surface below is only thousands! Eclipses provide unique opportunities to get higher quality and speed images than are normally available, either from space or from the ground. During the total eclipse, we're using telescopes mounted on the noses of NASA's WB-57 research jets to observe the solar corona. By observing waves in it and measuring their direction, size, and speed, we hope to better understand how energy is transported up into the corona. With two jets flying at 50,000 feet, we'll get 7-and-a-half minutes of totality compared to only 2-and-a-half on the ground.

What it means: Studying how the corona is formed and how it evolves will lead to better understanding "space weather" hazards like flares and coronal mass ejections that can impact Earth and damage satellites, interrupt GPS and radio, and knock out power grids.

Other voices in the conversation: