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Science | The Atlantic
Science | The Atlantic
The Solar System Is Full of Volcanoes
Rosaly Lopes spent five years carefully inspecting a churning landscape where molten rock spilled forth like the arced jets of a water fountain. Using data from an orbiting probe, she picked out eruptions across the fiery surface, eventually spotting 71 active volcanoes that no one had ever detected before.“People used to joke with me, ‘Oh, you found another active volcano!’” Lopes told me. “‘You’re going to be in the Guinness World Book of Records’”—until one day, one of those offhand comments made its way to somebody who actually worked for Guinness World Records. Lopes ended up in the 2006 edition, recognized for discovering the most active volcanoes anywhere.None of the volcanoes were on Earth, though. They were several hundred million miles away, on a moon of Jupiter called Io.Today, Io is known as the most volcanically active place in the solar system. Other volcanic spots are scattered across our neighboring planets and moons, too, and probably countless more in other solar systems across the universe. Recently, NASA announced it would fund proposals for four new robotic missions, all headed for a close look at these kinds of worlds—Io, Venus, and Triton, a moon of Neptune.Not long ago, Earth held the title for the most volcanic spot in the solar system. As a rule, volcanic activity indicates that a world is cooling off; after planets and moons form—an extreme and fiery process—they can spend billions of years ejecting heat from their interiors through cracks in the surface. Small bodies, like our moon, should go cold faster than others, and spurts on the surface can reveal the invisible contours of a world deep within. “Volcanism is like a window into the interior of the planet,” says Sue Smrekar, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is leading one of the proposed missions.In the 1970s, as the Voyager mission cruised toward the outer planets, scientists predicted that the spacecraft would find moons like our own. The moons around Jupiter, for example, are about the size of our moon or smaller, so it stood to reason that they, too, would be cold, still, and speckled with craters. Instead, Voyager found the first, surprising evidence of volcanic activity somewhere besides our planet. “It was very hard for people to accept that such a small moon like Io could still have active volcanism, because Io should have cooled a long time ago,” Lopes said.In the 40 years since, planetary scientists have moved from monitoring eruptions on Earth to finding them sprinkled across the solar system. Soon, perhaps, they will get a closer look at what exactly makes these extraterrestrial blasts tick.The team targeting Io knows about a phenomenon the Voyager scientists didn’t, called tidal heating. Io orbits between Jupiter and two of the planet’s other moons, Europa and Ganymede, and this configuration means that Io is subject to the gravitational forces of all three. The constant tugging heats up Io’s interior, melting rock into lava. As the moon stretches and shrinks over the course of a brisk 42-hour orbit, cracks emerge on its surface, and the lava escapes through.“It’s changing the shape of the whole planet,” says Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona who is leading the mission concept to Io. Lava, loosed from the interior, flows like muddy waters in a flash flood and fills in craters, regularly smoothing out the moon’s terrain. Many of the exoplanets that astronomers have discovered so far orbit close enough to their stars to experience the same kind of tidal heating, which makes Io a particularly suitable analogue for understanding worlds beyond our neighborhood, McEwen says.Closer to home, there’s Venus, where the surface is a mosaic of volcanic features, from peaks to plains, shaped from eons of roiling activity. “We see huge fields of small volcanoes in places on Venus that remind us of the little guys we see in Iceland,” says James Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the lead on one of the Venus missions. The planet’s volcanoes, numbering in the hundreds, are thought to have petered out long ago, but scientists have found evidence that some activity might be under way right now.A few years ago, an infrared camera on a European spacecraft peered through the planet’s thick atmosphere and caught spots on the surface suddenly heating up and cooling down again. Smrekar’s mission to Venus would send a spacecraft to orbit the planet, map its topography, and determine whether there’s still some churning going on. Another mission, led by Garvin, will drop a probe through Venus’s atmosphere into a potentially volcanic area, moving down “as if we were descending in a helicopter ourselves,” he says. The probe would have the capability to analyze atmospheric gases and pick out signatures of recent eruptions.Farther out, on Triton, the lava plumes are made of ice. In 1989, the Voyager mission revealed a world surfaced, cantaloupe-like, with bumps and ridges, and so cold that nitrogen exists as shiny frost on the surface. In quite the stroke of luck, the spacecraft, as it flew past, caught geysers of particles erupting from the surface and drifting downwind in the moon’s thin atmosphere.Spacecraft haven’t been back since, and scientists are eager to investigate Triton in more depth—particularly the intriguing possibility that the plumes could be coming from a hidden, subsurface ocean. A briny body of water, even this far from the warmth of the sun, could harbor some of the basic components that could give rise to life in the same way that Earth’s dark seafloors have.“[Triton] is five times further away than Saturn. Understanding even worlds that far out in the solar system could still have some of the ingredients of a habitable world would basically revolutionize our understanding of what it means to be a habitable world,” says Louise Prockter, the director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston and head of the proposed Triton mission.NASA has doled out $3 million to each team to develop their mission concepts. Next year, the agency will pick one or two of them to move forward, toward spaceflight construction. The Venus missions would reach their target in the early 2020s, while the Io mission won’t arrive until 2031 and the Trident mission until 2038, when scientists’ knowledge of these distant volcanic worlds would be nearly half a century old. By then, it’s possible that astronomers, using the most powerful telescopes, would have discovered volcanic plumes bursting from worlds deep in space, around other suns. The findings in our own solar system have shown that the cosmos is trembling with the rumble of churning worlds. Someone will have to discover all those volcanoes—Lopes’s record won’t stand forever.
2020-03-12 13:30:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Small Stresses of Keeping Coronavirus-Free
Recently, in this time of coronavirus, I got home and dutifully washed my hands to two cycles of “Happy Birthday.” Then I did what I automatically do when my mind is idle and my hands are free, which is to take my phone out of my pocket—the same phone, I groaned upon realizing, that I had just been using with unwashed hands while riding the bus and buying groceries and touching doorknobs. I set my phone on the counter but immediately regretted it. Did I need to disinfect my counter now? What about the inside of my pocket? Oh my God, did I just touch my face?As the coronavirus has spread, I’ve noticed this second-guessing—not always rational—start to infect my everyday habits. When these deliberations start to spiral, I realize that I can wage total and obsessive germ warfare, or I can get on with my life. It’s not that I necessarily fear the virus itself—most cases of the disease it causes, known as COVID-19, have been mild. But the deluge of coronavirus news has made its potential but invisible presence foremost in my mind and extracted a kind of mental tax.[Read: The official coronavirus numbers are wrong, and everyone knows it]With the coronavirus undetected because of delayed testing and now spreading in U.S. communities, the burden to prevent its further spread has in some ways shifted onto our individual actions—as a kind of civic duty, even. So I’m constantly reminded that gestures as mindless as pushing an elevator button are possible vectors of disease. I’m constantly trying to remember which knuckle pushed the elevator button and which knuckle is possibly safe to use to scratch this itch on my nose. Oh, right, yes—I’m supposed to avoid touching my face, a task that I and pretty much everyone else have been failing at specularly. It’s hard to change habits, and that is exactly what public-health advice for the coronavirus has asked us to do. By definition, habits are things “we don’t put a lot of cognitive effort into making happen,” says Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. Changing those habits does take cognitive effort. And it takes an ambient alertness about seemingly infinite tiny gestures that you might normally do on autopilot.[ Read: The problem with telling sick workers to stay home ] You might, for example, expend mental energy remembering not to touch your face. Then your nose starts itching and you’re thinking about what you can do, but in that time, you’ve already subconsciously scratched your nose. (Face touching, ironically, is a stress response.) Now you’re beating yourself up about it, and your paranoid mind says maybe you’re already infected with the virus so why even bother? Now repeat this for dozens of moments throughout the day that would otherwise pass without thought.Bufka suggests using positive reinforcement instead. Congratulate yourself when you remember to wash your hands for the full 20 seconds. Don’t be too hard on yourself about the time you forgot, as developing new habits invariably takes some time. “When there was the first public education campaign to sneeze to our elbows, that took me several weeks to make the transition,” she says. And the coronavirus seems likely to still be around in several weeks, so these habits, ingrained now, could become even more important.Also, don’t overthink it, as I almost certainly did when I started to worry about my counter and the insides of my pockets. (For perspective, the CDC recommends disinfecting phones and other highly trafficked hard surfaces every day. Viruses are also unlikely to persist on absorbent materials such as fabric.) As my colleague James Hamblin writes on the issue of disinfecting surfaces, “It’s very possible to become compulsive about this in ways that have their own risks. Any given surface is very unlikely to harbor a dangerous virus, so it’s possible to overdo this and waste a lot of time, resources, and concern.” And it’s possible to become so overwhelmed going down a compulsive spiral that you throw your (unwashed) hands up and despair.[ Read: Here’s who should be avoiding crowds right now ]The public-health advice around the coronavirus is about maintaining this balance. “We need to be careful with the risk-benefit ratio,” says Elaine Larson, an infection-control expert at Columbia University. Significantly reducing the chances of your exposure to the coronavirus is perfectly doable. Reducing it to absolute zero is pretty much impossible. You could drive yourself up the wall trying to track the spot on your shirt that brushed against your coat sleeve that had brushed up against a subway pole, but you rapidly reach a point of diminishing returns.Constant reminders of the coronavirus can easily tip from mindfulness into anxiety. “You don’t have to read every piece of news,” says Bufka, the clinical psychologist. “It’s highly unlikely there is a piece of news that is going to so dramatically change in the next hour what we are going to do that we have to read it right now … You can make some decisions about when you’re done. I’m good with that. I can live with that.”
2020-03-04 19:59:36
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Nuclear Tests Marked Life on Earth With a Radioactive Spike
On the morning of March 1, 1954, a hydrogen bomb went off in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. John Clark was only 20 miles away when he issued the order, huddled with his crew inside a windowless concrete blockhouse on Bikini Atoll. But seconds went by, and all was silent. He wondered if the bomb had failed. Eventually, he radioed a Navy ship monitoring the test explosion.“It’s a good one,” they told him.Then the blockhouse began to lurch. At least one crew member got seasick—“landsick” might be the better descriptor. A minute later, when the bomb blast reached them, the walls creaked and water shot out of the bathroom pipes. And then, once more, nothing. Clark waited for another impact—perhaps a tidal wave—but after 15 minutes he decided it was safe for the crew to venture outside.The mushroom cloud towered into the sky. The explosion, dubbed “Castle Bravo,” was the largest nuclear-weapons test up to that point. It was intended to try out the first hydrogen bomb ready to be dropped from a plane. Many in Washington felt that the future of the free world depended on it, and Clark was the natural pick to oversee such a vital blast. He was the deputy test director for the Atomic Energy Commission, and had already participated in more than 40 test shots. Now he gazed up at the cloud in awe. But then his Geiger counter began to crackle.“It could mean only one thing,” Clark later wrote. “We were already getting fallout.”That wasn’t supposed to happen. The Castle Bravo team had been sure that the radiation from the blast would go up to the stratosphere or get carried away by the winds safely out to sea. In fact, the chain reactions unleashed during the explosion produced a blast almost three times as big as predicted—1,000 times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb.Within seconds, the fireball had lofted 10 million tons of pulverized coral reef, coated in radioactive material. And soon some of that deadly debris began dropping to Earth. If Clark and his crew had lingered outside, they would have died in the fallout.Clark rushed his team back into the blockhouse, but even within the thick walls, the level of radiation was still climbing. Clark radioed for a rescue but was denied: It would be too dangerous for the helicopter pilots to come to the island. The team hunkered down, wondering if they were being poisoned to death. The generators failed, and the lights winked out.“We were not a happy bunch,” Clark recalled.They spent hours in the hot, radioactive darkness until the Navy dispatched helicopters their way. When the crew members heard the blades, they put on bedsheets to protect themselves from fallout. Throwing open the blockhouse door, they ran to nearby jeeps as though they were in a surreal Halloween parade, and drove half a mile to the landing pad. They clambered into the helicopters, and escaped over the sea.[Read: The people who built the atomic bomb]As Clark and his crew found shelter aboard a Navy ship, the debris from Castle Bravo rained down on the Pacific. Some landed on a Japanese fishing boat 70 miles away. The winds then carried it to three neighboring atolls. Children on the island of Rongelap played in the false snow. Five days later, Rongelap was evacuated, but not before its residents had received a near-lethal dose of radiation. Some people suffered burns, and a number of women later gave birth to severely deformed babies. Decades later, studies would indicate that the residents experienced elevated rates of cancer.The shocking power of Castle Bravo spurred the Soviet Union to build up its own nuclear arsenal, spurring the Americans in turn to push the arms race close to global annihilation. But the news reports of sick Japanese fishermen and Pacific islanders inspired a worldwide outcry against bomb tests. Nine years after Clark gave the go-ahead for Castle Bravo, the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed a treaty to ban aboveground nuclear-weapons testing. As for Clark, he returned to the United States and lived for another five decades, dying in 2002 at age 98.Among the isotopes created by a thermonuclear blast is a rare, radioactive version of carbon, called carbon 14. Castle Bravo and the hydrogen-bomb tests that followed it created vast amounts of carbon 14, which have endured ever since. A little of this carbon 14 made its way into Clark’s body, into his blood, his fat, his gut, and his muscles. Clark carried a signature of the nuclear weapons he tested to his grave.I can state this with confidence, even though I did not carry out an autopsy on Clark. I know this because the carbon 14 produced by hydrogen bombs spread over the entire world. It worked itself into the atmosphere, the oceans, and practically every living thing. As it spread, it exposed secrets. It can reveal when we were born. It tracks hidden changes to our hearts and brains. It lights up the cryptic channels that join the entire biosphere into a single network of chemical flux. This man-made burst of carbon 14 has been such a revelation that scientists refer to it as “the bomb spike.” Only now is the bomb spike close to disappearing, but as it vanishes, scientists have found a new use for it: to track global warming, the next self-inflicted threat to our survival.Sixty-five years after Castle Bravo, I wanted to see its mark. So I drove to Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. I was 7,300 miles from Bikini Atoll, in a cozy patch of New England forest on a cool late-summer day, but Clark’s blast felt close to me in both space and time.I made my way to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, where I met Mary Gaylord, a senior research assistant. She led me to the lounge of Maclean Hall. Outside the window, dogwoods bloomed. Next to the Keurig coffee maker was a refrigerator with the sign that read STORE ONLY FOOD IN THIS REFRIGERATOR. We had come to this ordinary spot to take a look at something extraordinary. Next to the refrigerator was a massive section of tree trunk, as wide as a dining-room table, resting on a pallet.The beech tree from which this slab came from was planted around 1870, by a Boston businessman named Joseph Story Fay near his summer house in Woods Hole. The seedling grew into a towering, beloved fixture in the village. Lovelorn initials scarred its broad base. And then, after nearly 150 years, it started to rot from bark disease and had to come down.“They had to have a ceremony to say goodbye to it. It was a very sad day,” Gaylord said. “And I saw an opportunity.”Gaylord is an expert at measuring carbon 14. Before the era of nuclear testing, carbon 14 was generated outside of labs only by cosmic rays falling from space. They crashed into nitrogen atoms, and out of the collision popped a carbon 14 atom. Just one in 1 trillion carbon atoms in the atmosphere was a carbon 14 isotope. Fay’s beech took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to build wood, and so it had the same one-in-a-trillion proportion. When Gaylord got word that the tree was coming down in 2015, she asked for a cross-section of the trunk. Once it arrived at the institute, she and two college students carefully counted its rings. Looking at the tree, I could see a line of pinholes extending from the center to the edge of the trunk. Those were the places where Gaylord and her students used razor blades to carve out bits of wood. In each sample, they measured the level of radiocarbon.“In the end, we got what I hoped for,” she said. What she’d hoped for was a history of our nuclear era.For most of the tree’s life, they found, the level had remained steady from one year to the next. But in 1954, John Clark initiated an extraordinary climb. The new supply of radiocarbon atoms in the atmosphere over Bikini Atoll spread around the world. When it reached Woods Hole, Fay’s beech tree absorbed the bomb radiocarbon in its summer leaves and added it to its new ring of wood.As nuclear testing accelerated, Fay’s beech took on more radiocarbon. A graph pinned to the wall above the beech slab charts the changes. In less than a decade, the level of radiocarbon in the tree’s outermost rings nearly doubled to almost two parts per trillion. But not long after the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, that climb stopped. After a peak in 1964, each new ring of wood in Fay’s beech carried a little less radiocarbon. The fall was far slower than the climb. The level of radiocarbon in the last ring the beech grew before getting cut down was only 6 percent above the radiocarbon levels before Castle Bravo. Versions of the same sawtoothlike peak Gaylord drew had already been found in other parts of the world, including the rings of trees in New Zealand and the coral reefs of the Galapagos Islands. In October 2019, Gaylord unveiled an exquisitely clear version of the bomb spike in New England.When scientists first discovered radiocarbon, in 1940, they did not find it in a tree or any other part of nature. They made it. Regular carbon has six protons and six neutrons. At UC Berkeley, Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben blasted carbon with a beam of neutrons and produced a new form, with eight neutrons instead of six. Unlike regular carbon, these new atoms turned out to be a source of radiation. Every second, a small portion of the carbon 14 atoms decayed into nitrogen, giving off radioactive particles. Kamen and Ruben used that rate of decay to estimate carbon 14’s half-life at 4,000 years. Later research would sharpen that estimate to 5,700 years.Soon after Kamen and Ruben’s discovery, a University of Chicago physicist named Willard Libby determined that radiocarbon existed beyond the walls of Berkeley’s labs. Cosmic rays falling from space smashed into nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere every second of every day, transforming those atoms into carbon 14. And because plants and algae drew in carbon dioxide from the air, Libby realized, they should have radiocarbon in their tissue, as should the animals that eat those plants (and the animals that eat those animals, for that matter).Libby reasoned that as long as an organism is alive and taking in carbon 14, the concentration of the isotope in its tissue should roughly match the concentration in the atmosphere. Once an organism dies, however, its radiocarbon should decay and eventually disappear completely.To test this idea, Libby set out to measure carbon 14 in living organisms. He had colleagues go to a sewage-treatment plant in Baltimore, where they captured the methane given off by bacteria feeding on the sewage. When the methane samples arrived in Chicago, Libby extracted the carbon and put it in a radioactivity detector.. It crackled as carbon 14 decayed to nitrogen.[Read: Global warming could make carbon dating impossible]To see what happens to carbon 14 in dead tissue, Libby ran another experiment, this one with methane from oil wells. He knew that oil is made up of algae and other organisms that fell to the ocean floor and were buried for millions of years. Just as he had predicted, the methane from ancient oil contained no carbon 14 at all.Libby then had another insight, one that would win him the Nobel Prize: The decay of carbon 14 in dead tissues acts like an archaeological clock. As the isotope decays inside a piece of wood, a bone, or some other form of organic matter, it can tell scientists how long ago that matter was alive. Radiocarbon dating, which works as far back as about 50,000 years, has revealed to us to when the Neanderthals became extinct, when farmers domesticated wheat, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. It has become the calendar of humanity.Word of Libby’s breakthrough reached a New Zealand physicist named Athol Rafter. He began using radiocarbon dating on the bones of extinct flightless birds and ash from ancient eruptions. To make the clock more precise, Rafter measured the level of radiocarbon in the atmosphere. Every few weeks he climbed a hill outside the city of Wellington and set down a Pyrex tray filled with lye to trap carbon dioxide.Rafter expected the level of radiocarbon to fluctuate. But he soon discovered that something else was happening: Month after month, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was getting more radioactive. He dunked barrels into the ocean, and he found that the amount of carbon 14 was rising in seawater as well. He could even measure extra carbon 14 in the young leaves growing on trees in New Zealand.The Castle Bravo test and the ones that followed had to be the source. They were turning the atmosphere upside down. Instead of cosmic rays falling from space, they were sending neutrons up to the sky, creating a huge new supply of radiocarbon.In 1957, Rafter published his results in the journal Science. The implications were immediately clear—and astonishing: Man-made carbon 14 was spreading across the planet from test sites in the Pacific and the Arctic. It was even passing from the air into the oceans and trees.Other scientists began looking, and they saw the same pattern. In Texas, the carbon 14 levels in new tree rings were increasing each year. In Holland, the flesh of snails gained more as well. In New York, scientists examined the lungs of a fresh human cadaver, and found that extra carbon 14 lurked in its cells. A living volunteer donated blood and an exhalation of air. Bomb radiocarbon was in those, too.Bomb radiocarbon did not pose a significant threat to human health—certainly not compared with other elements released by bombs, such as plutonium and uranium. But its accumulation was deeply unsettling nonetheless. When Linus Pauling accepted the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigning against hydrogen bombs, he said that carbon 14 “deserves our special concern” because it “shows the extent to which the earth is being changed by the tests of nuclear weapons.”[Photos: When we tested nuclear bombs]The following year, the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty stopped aboveground nuclear explosions, and ended the supply of bomb radiocarbon. All told, those tests produced about 60,000 trillion trillion new atoms of carbon 14. It would take cosmic rays 250 years to make that much. In 1964, Rafter quickly saw the treaty’s effect: His trays of lye had less carbon 14 than they had the year before.Only a tiny fraction of the carbon 14 was decaying into nitrogen. For the most part, the atmosphere’s radiocarbon levels were dropping because the atoms were rushing out of the air. This exodus of radiocarbon gave scientists an unprecedented chance to observe how nature works.Today scientists are still learning from these man-made atoms. “I feel a little bit bad about it,” says Kristie Boering, an atmospheric chemist at UC Berkeley who has studied radiocarbon for more than 20 years. “It’s a huge tragedy, the fact that we set off all these bombs to begin with. And then we get all this interesting scientific information from it for all these decades. It’s hard to know exactly how to pitch that when we’re giving talks. You can’t get too excited about the bombs that we set off, right?”Yet the fact remains that for atmospheric scientists like Boering, bomb radiocarbon has lit up the sky like a tracer dye. When nuclear triggermen such as John Clark set off their bombs, most of the resulting carbon 14 shot up into the stratosphere directly above the impact sites. Each spring, parcels of stratospheric air gently fell down into the troposphere below, carrying with them a fresh load of carbon 14. It took a few months for these parcels to settle on weather stations on the ground. Only by following bomb radiocarbon did scientists discover this perpetual avalanche.Once carbon 14 fell out of the stratosphere, it kept moving. The troposphere is made up of four great rings of circulating air. Inside each ring, warm air rises and flows through the sky away from the equator. Eventually it cools and sinks back to the ground, flowing toward the equator again before rising once more. At first, bomb radiocarbon remained trapped in the Northern Hemisphere rings, above where the tests had taken place. It took many years to leak through their invisible walls and move toward the tropics. After that, the annual monsoons sweeping through southern Asia pushed bomb radiocarbon over the equator and into the Southern Hemisphere.Zoe van DjikEventually, some of the bomb radiocarbon fell all the way to the surface of the planet. Some of it was absorbed by trees and other plants, which then died and delivered some of that radiocarbon to the soil. Other radiocarbon atoms settled into the ocean, to be carried along by its currents.Carbon 14 “is inextricably linked to our understanding of how the water moves,” says Steve Beaupre, an oceanographer at Stony Brook University, in New York.In the 1970s, marine scientists began carrying out the first major chemical surveys of the world’s oceans. They found that bomb radiocarbon had penetrated the top 1,000 meters of the ocean. Deeper than that, it became scarce. This pattern helped oceanographers figure out that the ocean, like the atmosphere above, is made up of layers of water that remain largely separate.The warm, relatively fresh water on the surface of the ocean glides over the cold, salty depths. These surface currents become saltier as they evaporate, and eventually, at a few crucial spots on the planet, these streams get so dense that they fall to the bottom of the ocean. The bomb radiocarbon from Castle Bravo didn’t start plunging down into the depths of the North Atlantic until the 1980s, when John Clark was two decades into retirement. It’s still down there, where it will be carried along the seafloor by bottom-hugging ocean currents for hundreds of years before it rises to the light of day.Some of the bomb radiocarbon that falls into the ocean makes its way into ocean life, too. Some corals grow by adding rings of calcium carbonate, and they have recorded their own version of the bomb spike. Their spike lagged well behind the one that Rafter recorded, thanks to the extra time the radiocarbon took to mix into the ocean. Algae and microbes on the surface of the ocean also take up carbon from the air, and they feed a huge food web in turn. The living things in the upper reaches of the ocean release organic carbon that falls gently to the seafloor—a jumble of protoplasmic goo, dolphin droppings, starfish eggs, and all manner of detritus that scientists call marine snow. In recent decades, that marine snow has become more radioactive.In 2009, a team of Chinese researchers sailed across the Pacific and dropped traps 36,000 feet down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. When they hauled the traps up, there were minnow-size, shrimplike creatures inside. These were Hirondellea gigas, a deep-sea invertebrate that forages on the seafloor for bits of organic carbon. The animals were flush with bomb radiocarbon—a puzzling discovery, because the organic carbon that sits on the floor of the Mariana Trench is thousands of years old. It was as if they had been dining at the surface of the ocean, not at its greatest depths. In a few of the Hirondellea, the researchers found undigested particles of organic carbon. These meals were also high in carbon 14.[Read: A troubling discovery in the deepest ocean trenches]The bomb radiocarbon could not have gotten there by riding the ocean’s conveyor belt, says Ellen Druffel, a scientist at UC Irvine who collaborated with the Chinese team. “The only way you can get bomb carbon by circulation down to the deep Pacific would take 500 years,” she says. Instead, Hirondellea must be dining on freshly fallen marine snow.“I must admit, when I saw the data it was really amazing,” Dreffel says. “These organisms were sifting out the very youngest material from the surface ocean. They were just leaving behind everything else that came down.”More than 60 years have passed since the peak of the bomb spike, and yet bomb radiocarbon is telling us new stories about the world. That’s because experts like Mary Gaylord are getting better at gathering these rare atoms. At Woods Hole, Gaylord works at the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry facility (NOSAMS for short). She prepares samples for analysis in a thicket of pipes, wires, glass tubes, and jars of frothing liquid nitrogen. “Our whole life is vacuum lines and vacuum pumps,” she told me.At NOSAMS, Gaylord and her colleagues measure radiocarbon in all manner of things: sea spray, bat guano, typhoon-tossed trees. The day I visited, Gaylord was busy with fish eyes. Black-capped vials sat on a lab bench, each containing a bit of lens from a red snapper.The wispy, pale tissue had come to NOSAMS from Florida. A biologist named Beverly Barnett had gotten hold of eyes from red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico and sliced out their lenses. Barnett then peeled away the layers of the lenses one at a time. When she describes this work, she makes it sound like woodworking or needlepoint—a hobby anyone would enjoy. “It’s like peeling off the layers of an onion,” she told me. “It’s really nifty to see.”Eventually, Barnett made her way down to the tiny nub at the center of each lens. These bits of tissue developed when the red snapper were still in their eggs. And Barnett wanted to know exactly how much bomb radiocarbon is in these precious fragments. In a couple of days, Gaylord and her colleagues would be able to tell her.Gaylord started by putting the lens pieces into an oven that slowly burned them away. The vapors and smoke flowed into a pipe, chased by helium and nitrogen. Gaylord separated the carbon dioxide from the other compounds, and then shunted it into chilled glass tubes. There it formed a frozen fog on the inside walls.Later, the team at NOSAMS would transform the frozen carbon dioxide into chips of graphite, which they would then load into what looks like an enormous, crooked laser cannon. At one end of the cannon, graphite gets vaporized, and the liberated carbon atoms fly down the barrel. By controlling the magnetic field and other conditions inside the cannon, the researchers cause the carbon 14 atoms to veer away from the carbon 12 atoms and other elements. The carbon 14 atoms fly onward on their own until they strike a sensor.Ultimately, all of this effort will end up in a number: the number of carbon 14 atoms in the red-snapper lens. For Barnett, every one of those atoms counts. They can tell her the exact age of the red snapper when the fish were caught.That’s because lenses are peculiar organs. Most of our cells keep making new proteins and destroying old ones. Cells in the lens, however, fill up with light-bending proteins and then die, their proteins locked in place for the rest of our life. The layers of cells at the core of the red-snapper lenses have the same carbon 14 levels that they did when the fish were in their eggs.Using lenses to estimate the ages of animals is still a new undertaking. But it’s already delivered some surprises. In 2016, for example, a team of Danish researchers studied the lenses from Greenland sharks ranging in size from two and a half to 16 feet long. The lenses of the sharks up to seven feet long had high levels of radiocarbon in them. That meant the sharks had hatched no earlier than the 1960s. The bigger sharks all had much lower levels of radiocarbon in their lenses—meaning that they had been born before Castle Bravo. By extrapolating out from these results, the researchers estimated that Greenland sharks have a staggeringly long life span, reaching up to 390 years or perhaps even more.Barnett has been developing an even more precise clock for her red snapper, taking advantage of the fact that the level of bomb radiocarbon peaked in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s and has been falling ever since. By measuring the level of bomb radiocarbon in the center of the snapper lenses, she can determine the year when the fish hatched.Knowing the age of fish with this kind of precision is powerful. Fishery managers can track the ages of the fish that are caught each year, information that they can then use to make sure their stocks don’t collapse. Barnett wants to study fish in the Gulf of Mexico to see how they were affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Their eyes can tell her how old they were when they were hit by that disaster.When it comes to carbon, we are no different than red snapper or Greenland sharks. We use the carbon in the food we eat to build our body, and the level of bomb radiocarbon inside of us reflects our age. People born in the early 1960s have more radiocarbon in their lenses than people born before that time. People born in the years since then have progressively less.For forensic scientists who need to determine the age of skeletal remains, lenses aren’t much help. But teeth are. As children develop teeth, they incorporate carbon into the enamel. If people’s teeth have a very low level of radiocarbon, it means that they were born well before Castle Bravo. People born in the early 1960s have high levels of radiocarbon in their molars, which develop early, and lower levels in their wisdom teeth, which grow years later. By matching each tooth in a jaw to the bomb curve, forensic scientists can estimate the age of a skeleton to within one or two years.Even after childhood, bomb radiocarbon chronicles the history of our body. When we build new cells, we make DNA strands out of the carbon in our food. Scientists have used bomb radiocarbon in people’s DNA to determine the age of their cells. In our brains, most of the cells form around the time we’re born. But many cells in our hearts and other organs are much younger.We also build other molecules throughout our lives, including fat. In a September 2019 study, Kirsty Spalding of the Karolinska Institute, near Stockholm, used bomb radiocarbon to study why people put on weight. Researchers had long known that our level of fat is the result of how much new fat we add to our body relative to how much we burn. But they didn’t have direct evidence for exactly how that balance influences our weight over the course of our life.Spalding and her colleagues found 54 people from whom doctors had taken fat biopsies and asked if they could follow up. The fat samples spanned up to 16 years. By measuring the age of the fat in each sample, the researchers could estimate the rate at which each person added and removed fat over their lives.The reason we put on weight as we get older, the researchers concluded, is that we get worse at removing fat from our bodies. “Before, you could intuitively believe that the rate at which we burn fat decreases as we age,” Spalding says, “but we showed it for the first time scientifically.”Unexpectedly, though, Spalding discovered that the people who lost weight and kept it off successfully were the ones who burned their fat slowly. “I was quite surprised by that data,” Spalding said. “It adds new and interesting biology to understanding how to help people maintain weight loss.”Children who are just now going through teething pains will have only a little more bomb radiocarbon in their enamel than children born before Castle Bravo did. Over the past six decades, the land and ocean have removed much of what nuclear bombs put into the air. Heather Graven, a climate scientist at Imperial College London, is studying this decline. It helps her predict the future of the planet.Graven and her colleagues build models of the world to study the climate. As we emit fossil fuels, the extra carbon dioxide traps heat. How much heat we’re facing in centuries to come depends in part on how much carbon dioxide the oceans and land can remove. Graven can use the rise and fall of bomb radiocarbon as a benchmark to test her models.In a recent study, she and her colleagues unleashed a virtual burst of nuclear-weapons tests. Then they tracked the fate of her simulated bomb radiocarbon to the present day. Much to Graven’s relief, the radiocarbon in the atmosphere quickly rose and then gradually fell. The bomb spike in her virtual world looks much like the one recorded in Joseph Fay’s beech tree.Graven can keep running her simulation beyond what Fay’s beech and other records tell us about the past. According to her model, the level of radiocarbon in the atmosphere should drop in 2020 to the level before Castle Bravo.“It’s right around now that we’re crossing over,” Graven told me.Graven will have to wait for scientists to analyze global measurements of radiocarbon in the air to see whether she’s right. That’s important to find out, because Graven’s model suggests that the bomb spike is falling faster than the oceans and land alone can account for. When the ocean and land draw down bomb radiocarbon, they also release some of it back into the air. That two-way movement of bomb radiocarbon ought to cause its concentration in the atmosphere to level off a little above the pre–Castle Bravo mark. Instead, Graven’s model suggests, it continues to fall. She suspects that the missing factor is us.We mine coal, drill for oil and gas, and then burn all that fossil fuel to power our cars, cool our houses, power our factories. In 1954, the year that John Clark set off Castle Bravo, humans emitted 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. In 2018, humans emitted about 37 billion tons. As Willard Libby first discovered, this fossil fuel has no radiocarbon left. By burning it, we are lowering the level of radiocarbon in the atmosphere, like a bartender watering down the top-shelf liquor.If we keep burning fossil fuels at our accelerating rate, the planet will veer into climate chaos. And once more, radiocarbon will serve as a witness to our self-destructive actions. Unless we swiftly stop burning fossil fuels, we will push carbon 14 down far below the level it was at before the nuclear bombs began exploding.To Graven, the coming radiocarbon crash is just as significant as the bomb spike has been. “We're transitioning from a bomb signal to a fossil-fuel-dilution signal,” she said.The author Jonathan Weiner once observed that we should think of burning fossil fuels as a disturbance on par with nuclear-weapon detonations. “It is a slow-motion explosion manufactured by every last man, woman and child on the planet,” he wrote. If we threw up our billions of tons of carbon into the air all at once, it would dwarf Castle Bravo. “A pillar of fire would seem to extend higher into the sky and farther into the future than the eye can see,” Weiner wrote.Bomb radiocarbon showed us how nuclear weapons threatened the entire world. Today, everyone on Earth still carries that mark. Now our pulse of carbon 14 is turning into an inverted bomb spike, a new signal of the next great threat to human survival.
2020-03-02 20:03:26
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
How Christina Koch Could Become a Spaceflight Legend
When Christina Koch returned to Earth earlier this month, feeling the full force of the planet’s gravity for the first time in a long time, it was the middle of the night in the United States. Her capsule parachuted into the Kazakh desert, and by morning, her name was all over the news. After spending 328 days living on the International Space Station, Koch had set a new record for American women in space.The volume of attention that morning, however warranted, was somewhat unusual for a modern astronaut. Missions to the space station are routine now, and the last astronaut to have his full name flashing across headlines, as if in marquee lights, was Scott Kelly, who nearly four years earlier broke the American record for long-duration spaceflight.All of this is to say that, in this era of space travel, most astronauts don’t become household names. Asked to think of an astronaut, most people would probably default to Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon—not to one of the dozens of astronauts who have flown to space in this century, or even one of the three who are there right now. The public today is more likely to be familiar with nonhuman explorers, like the Mars rover Curiosity and the New Horizons spacecraft, which photographed Pluto.But this century holds potential for new milestones in space exploration, the kind that can turn spacefarers into celebrities. The next Neil Armstrong could already be in NASA’s astronaut corps, which is more diverse now than ever before. This person will have charisma and steely resolve—and probably a very compelling Instagram account.[Read: The next big milestone in American spaceflight]There is no distinct formula that makes astronauts famous, but an obvious component is novelty, says Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the space-history department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Firsts—Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, delivering his famous line after he put his boot down—become indelible in public memory. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, is probably the most well-known American female astronaut.Other superlatives, especially of the Guinness World Records variety—the most, the longest, the oldest—can make astronauts, if not flat-out famous, at least memorable. Peggy Whitson, for example, holds the record for most spacewalks by a woman. Seconds can be even less sticky. Do you remember, for instance, what the commander of Apollo 12, the second moon-landing mission, said when he descended from the lander and touched the gray surface? Or what his name was? Twelve men have walked on the moon, and even those in the space community might struggle to name all of them. Many people don’t realize that there was a third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission: Michael Collins, who stayed behind in the command module while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the surface.Some firsts, of course, can be eclipsed by later, bigger firsts. Alan Shepard was heralded as a national hero when he became the first American to reach space in 1961, less than a month after Yuri Gagarin did it for the Soviet Union. When John Glenn flew a year later, he didn’t just pierce the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space; he circled the planet three times. It was a more intense mission, and Glenn came up with a memorable tagline for it, which he repeated for years to come: “Zero G and I feel fine.” Today, Glenn is arguably the more famous of the two. As NASA grew its astronaut corps in the 1960s, astronauts “needed slightly more extraordinary circumstances to break out of the pack and become that household name,” Weitekamp says. Even milestone “firsts” didn’t always make a lasting impression in the national imagination; the first NASA astronauts of color to travel to space—Guion Bluford, who flew on the shuttle in 1983, and Mae Jemison, who followed in 1992—are icons in the space community, but less well known to laypeople.The first all-female spacewalk, conducted last fall by Koch and Jessica Meir, drew a great deal of attention, and if it ever materialized, so would the first all-female crew on the ISS. When NASA astronauts launch on a brand-new SpaceX transportation system sometime this year, the first endeavor of its kind, the passengers’ names will most certainly cut through the news cycle. But such milestones, on their own, are unlikely to bestow astronauts with mythical status.“When you start thinking about who’s going to be the next Neil Armstrong, you’re going to be looking for that combination of achievement and that personality that catches the public’s attention, the person who has the ‘it’ factor,” Weitekamp says.Armstrong, she adds, had it. After he flew a couple of missions for Gemini, NASA’s pre-Apollo program, the agency sent him on a publicity tour through South America. Armstrong took a Spanish conversation class to prepare for the trip and name-dropped important South American figures, particularly in aviation, in his speeches, according to James R. Hansen’s biography of the astronaut. “He never failed to choose the right words,” recalled George Low, a NASA executive who traveled with Armstrong and was impressed.Low would later manage the Apollo program and its crew assignments, including which astronaut should be the first one out of the lander. Armstrong had proved to NASA leadership not only that he could master the mission—he was one of the agency’s best pilots—but that he could handle the attention, too. Armstrong is famous in part because NASA chose him to be famous and, after he finished the mission, turned him into a spokesman for American spaceflight. Aldrin, meanwhile, may be better remembered for the persona he cultivated after visiting the moon, where he followed Armstrong onto the lunar surface. Whereas Armstrong, who died in 2012, is remembered for his stoic and amiable personality, Aldrin became known for a feisty attitude he has maintained into his 90s. (In recent years, he punched a moon-landing denier outside of a hotel and made a GIF-worthy range of facial expressions behind President Trump as he spoke about space exploration.)In some cases, the “it” factor can outweigh a record-setting superlative. Chris Hadfield is the first Canadian to do a spacewalk, but he’s best known for his floating rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on board the ISS, which has more than 45 million views on YouTube. Scott Kelly holds the American record for the most consecutive days in space, but he built his fan base through frequent Instagram posts of beautiful Earth shots. NASA does plenty of work to promote astronauts, especially those involved in the flashiest missions. But thanks to social media—which astronauts are encouraged to use—the spacefarers can take that much more ownership of their public image.[Read: The exquisite boredom of spacewalking]Fans have always been eager for such personal glimpses of astronauts’ personalities, Weitekamp says; in the 1950s and ’60s, Life magazine ran stories about the lives of the Mercury astronauts, ghostwritten but published under the men’s bylines. These days, every NASA astronaut has a professional Twitter account—a very different kind of launchpad for name recognition, but potentially nearly as effective. A tweet from Koch featuring a heartwarming video of the astronaut greeting her dog, adorably overjoyed after their long separation, quickly went viral.To be a spaceflight legend, an astronaut will likely need, as Weitekamp puts it, extraordinary circumstances. Imagine the first woman on the moon, or the first people to set foot on Mars. It is not unrealistic to think that at the end of this century, the name of the first person to step onto the red planet will be more prominently woven into collective memory than the name Neil Armstrong. By the end of this century, 1969 will be 130 years in the past, as distant a memory as 1890 is now, when Nellie Bly made headlines by circumnavigating the globe, by ship and by rail, in just 72 days.These explorers are probably already within NASA’s ranks. (Or, perhaps, working for a private company: The 21st century’s most famous spacefarer could end up being Elon Musk.) NASA recently added 11 new members to its active astronaut corps, bringing the total to 48. The new class, fresh off training, “may be assigned to missions destined for the International Space Station, the Moon, and ultimately, Mars,” the space agency said in a statement. These new astronauts can’t predict which among their ranks might be chosen for the next big feat in spaceflight history, but they can start daydreaming about what they might say as they take their own first step. Or they could go the Armstrong route and wait until the moment is near. Days before Apollo 11 launched, a reporter asked whether Armstrong, being “destined to become a historical personage of some consequence,” had come up with “something suitably historical and memorable” to say when he stepped onto the moon. “No, I haven’t,” Armstrong replied. Better to make history first.
2020-03-02 15:00:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Earth Has Had a Secret Second Moon for Months Now
This is going to sound preposterous, but I promise it’s true: Earth has another moon.It is not the kind that will illuminate the night sky. It’s invisible to the naked eye and too tiny to do any classic moon moves, like tugging on the planet’s oceans. But it’s there, orbiting the Earth, accompanying us on our journey around the sun.A pair of astronomers discovered the miniature moon on the night of February 15. It showed up in the nightly observations of the Catalina Sky Survey, a NASA-funded project in Arizona. The survey is designed to study asteroids and comets near Earth, the kind that could potentially menace the planet if they got too close. To Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne, the mystery object appeared as a few pixels of light moving quickly across a dusky, fixed background.Researchers at other observatories and amateur astronomers around the world raced to monitor the newcomer in the sky, collecting as much data as they could. When they calculated its orbit, they were baffled. The object wasn’t a newcomer at all. So far, their work suggests that the object has been moving around us, gravitationally bound to the Earth for the past many months—at least a year, but potentially closer to three. We’ve had a tiny new moon all this time, and we didn’t know about it.So what exactly is this thing?Astronomers don’t know everything yet—it’s been less than two weeks!—but they’ve identified some traits. The object is about the size of a compact car and traces a rambling loop around Earth about every four months or so. As the object passed by Earth on its path through space, the planet’s gravity pulled it close. And in that moment, it became a moon.Earth's new mini-moon against a backdrop of stars, as seen by Hawaii's Gemini telescope (The International Gemini Observatory / NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory / AURA / G. Fedorets)At first, astronomers thought the new moon could be a piece of space junk, a rocket part discarded after a successful launch. To say conclusively, astronomers would need to use powerful telescopes to study the sunlight reflected off the object, which can reveal its composition from afar. There’s at least a small chance that it could be a chunk of our moon that broke off after an impact, one astronomer told me. But the latest observations suggest that the object is probably an asteroid, one of the many floating around near Earth.“It’s just a chance occurrence,” Kat Volk, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, told me. “They just have to come in at the right speed and the right angle. The vast majority of things that are whizzing by the Earth do not get even temporarily captured into orbit; they just keep whizzing by, with their trajectory just a little bit tweaked by the Earth’s gravity.”Astronomers have named the mini-moon, for now, 2020 CD3. As excited as they were to find it, they weren’t completely shocked. The Catalina Sky Survey found one before, in 2006. Although they’ve now seen only two of them, astronomers suspect more are out there. Some estimate that, considering how many bits of asteroids reside near Earth, at least one tiny moon is lassoed around the planet at any given time. Gravity, after all, has shown itself to be a skilled thief; some of the outermost stars in our Milky Way were torn from another galaxy as it passed by. A rock the size of a car is an easy steal for Earth’s gravitational forces.These forces, along with the moon’s own gravity, have put 2020 CD3 on a pretty quirky orbit, unlike the other neat loops of the solar system. Below, the white band represents the orbit of the moon, with the Earth inside. The tiny moon’s orbit is in red, looping around like yarn: (2/3) The object has just been announced by the MPC and its orbit shows that it entered Earth's orbit some three years ago. Here is a diagram of the orbit created with the orbit simulator written by Tony Dunn: pic.twitter.com/2wsJGtexiO — Kacper Wierzchos (@WierzchosKacper) February 26, 2020Like other near-Earth objects, 2020 CD3 probably originated in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. With the help of computer simulations, astronomers can try to trace its path back in time. “If you get enough data, you can conclusively trace these looping spaghetti paths through the Earth-moon system and find out where it entered the system,” says Eric Christensen, a University of Arizona astronomer who works on the Catalina Sky Survey, and who discovered the mini-moon in 2006.[Read: The pros and cons of a lunar pit stop]Mini-moons like 2020 CD3 are, unfortunately, “temporarily captured objects.” The object discovered in 2006 escaped Earth’s orbit and went on its merry way, less than a year after it was found. 2020 CD3 will eventually leave us, too. “This isn’t an object that is stably orbiting the Earth like the moon is,” Christensen says. “This is a fairly tenuous connection to the Earth. It’s getting tugged on by the moon and tugged on by the Earth.”The latest observations suggest that 2020 CD3 is already moving away from Earth for good. “Unfortunately, we are catching this one on its way back out,” says Bill Gray, who provided astronomical software that helped pinpoint the object. “It’s getting fainter. Already, it’s faint enough that if the Catalina Sky Survey looked at it now, it wouldn’t see it.” Gray predicts that the mini-moon will escape Earth’s orbit in a matter of weeks. It will most likely return to orbiting the sun, although there’s a chance it could someday head straight to Earth, where it would burn up in the atmosphere in a glittering meteor display.The thought of losing a new moon so soon after uncovering its existence is a little depressing, so I asked Volk whether, someday, Earth’s gravity could ensnare an object to stay, perhaps even one that we could see in the night sky, shining alongside the original moon. “It would be possible, but it would be extremely unlikely,” Volk said. “You would need the [object] to come in and have a gravitational interaction with our existing moon in just the perfect configuration that would tweak its orbit and put it onto a stable orbit around the Earth. You can’t really come in from a heliocentric orbit and get captured into a stable orbit.”Sigh. Back to marveling at our usual moon, then, that reliable glow in the night sky, as enduring as the stars around it. From our vantage point, the skies can seem predictable and immutable. The fleeting miniature moon provides a lovely reminder that our corner of the universe is, in fact, rather lively, sometimes more than we can know.
2020-02-27 21:34:37
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
A Bold and Controversial Idea for Making Breast Milk
The inconvenient truth about breastfeeding is that breasts are, invariably, attached to a person. A person who could get too sick to breastfeed. A person who might have to go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, because U.S. law does not mandate paid leave. A person who might have no place to pump at work, despite a law that does actually mandate such a room. For understandable and frustrating reasons, many mothers who want to breastfeed—who have internalized years of hearing “Breast is best”—simply cannot.Enter: a bioreactor of lactating human breast cells.A small start-up called Biomilq recently announced it has managed to grow human mammary cells that make at least two of the most common components of breast milk: a protein called casein and a sugar called lactose. This is the first step, the company hopes, to making human milk outside the human body.Breast milk is of course far, far more complex than just casein and lactose. It is made up of at least hundreds of different components: a multitude of proteins, fats, and sugars, but also antibodies, hormones, and beneficial bacteria. Biomilq’s founders, Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger, say that they seek to eventually make milk that is “nutritionally” but not necessarily “immunologically” close to breast milk. Experts I spoke with said that mammary cells in a bioreactor simply could not replicate the full complexity and benefits of breast milk. One researcher laughed at the idea.Biomilq does seem to be onto something though, at least culturally. Since the postwar days of doctors pushing formula as the superior “scientific” option, the conventional and medical wisdom has swung in the opposite direction—to the point where women often feel guilty for being unable to breastfeed. “There’s just a feeling of failure: I can’t do this for my child. This is really important,” said Maryanne Perrin, a breast-milk researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who has studied women trying to buy breast milk online for their children. “I heard a lot of anxiety in the voices and comments,” she added. In other words, there is definitely a demand for human breast milk.The idea for Biomilq, in fact, came out of Strickland’s own struggles to breastfeed as a new mom. Her son had trouble latching after he was born, and she wasn’t making enough milk. “During those months of life, my whole world revolved around whether or not my body would produce enough of this food,” she says. She wished for an option that was not formula. Strickland has a background in cell biology, so she naturally wondered: What about breast cells?In 2013, she began growing mammary cells in a tiny lab space in North Carolina, and in 2019, she met Egger, a student at Duke’s business school and a former food scientist at General Mills, who had worked on products such as Go-Gurt. They officially launched Biomilq late last year to make lab-grown human milk—or as they prefer to call it, “cultured breastmilk.” Another start-up based in Singapore, TurtleTree Labs, recently announced it is trying to re-create cow and human milk with cells as well.Human milk is currently available for sale, but it is not easy to buy. Officially, parents can go to a milk bank to buy donated breast milk that has been screened and pasteurized—but this requires a doctor’s prescription and can go for a hefty $4 or $5 an ounce to cover processing costs. (Milk banks also prioritize donor milk for sick or preterm infants in the hospital, for whom cow-based formula is particularly prone to causing a serious gut disease called necrotizing enterocolitis.) Unofficially, parents can go on Facebook or Craigslist or another online marketplace where women share or sell extra breast milk. These markets are cheaper and more convenient, but they’re also unregulated. Donors largely follow the honor system for disclosing medications and other health information. Meanwhile, formula is cheap, safe, and widely available in grocery stores. Biomilq promises to combine the “nutrition of breastmilk” with the “practicality of formula.”It’s hard to say, at this nascent stage, exactly how still-hypothetical breast milk made by cells in a bioreactor would compare with formula. The cultured human-milk proteins could be more suitable in a baby’s gut than dairy proteins, and sugars specific to human milk could help feed a baby’s new gut microbes.[Read: The ominous rise of toddler milk]But milk from cells in a bioreactor would still be missing some key components of true breast milk—for the simple reason that the components of breast milk don’t come from the breast alone. Natalie Shenker, a breast-milk researcher at Imperial College London, enumerated some examples: Antibodies, which transfer immunity against pathogens from mother to baby, come from the mother’s own immune cells in her blood. Hormones, which may shape the baby’s brain and behavior, from her endocrine system. Fats, which make up a substantial portion of the calories in milk, from her diet and own stored fatty tissue. (Biomilq suggests that these fats could be supplemented in cultured cells.) Beneficial bacteria that help populate the baby’s gut come from the mother’s own microbiome. The whole body is responsible for the production of what we call breast milk. The exact cocktail of protein, sugar, fats, antibodies, hormones, and bacteria in breast milk can change from day to day and even hour to hour. It can change in response to the baby’s needs. One hypothesis suggests that a sick baby can communicate via “retrograde milk flow”—more memorably termed “baby spit backwash”—to change the composition of breast milk to help the baby fight off disease. Breast milk is complex and dynamic. Perrin said she applauds any efforts to improve infant nutrition, but “to re-create breast milk in a test tube, I think we’re just so far away from that.”Growing enough mammary cells to make any milk at scale is also a huge technical challenge. These cells require expensive nutrients and are incredibly prone to contamination from bacteria. The recent interest in lab-grown meat has prompted a number of companies to work on these problems, but breast milk is likely to face higher scrutiny, deservedly so, because it is for babies. Shenker, who is familiar with the challenges of growing mammary cells from her own research, wondered whether re-creating milk was the best use of resources. Why go through the expensive, unproven process of growing cells to make milk in a bioreactor, she asked, when we already know how to get actual milk—nutritionally complete—from a donor? The problem is not a lack of breast milk on Earth, but a lack of access and distribution.[Read: The vindication of cheese, butter, and full-fat milk]When I contacted breast-milk researchers to ask about lab-grown breast milk, they ended up changing the topic to barriers faced by women who want to breastfeed. “A lot of moms aren’t getting the support they need,” said Meghan Azad, a breast-milk researcher at the University of Manitoba. Breastfeeding takes skill, which was lost for a generation when formula was dominant. It takes workplaces that give women the time and flexibility to breastfeed or pump. And it takes a culture that doesn’t shame women for breastfeeding in public. And although society makes it hard for women to breastfeed, it also tells them that “Breast is best.” The result is a nearly impossible set of expectations.The appeal of Biomilq is that it’s supposed to close the gap—that frustrating space between what mothers are expected to do and what most can realistically do. “We’re done making trade-offs between our baby’s health, our wellbeing, and the environment,” the company’s website proclaims. But it also puts the company in the position of both touting the benefits of breastfeeding … and telling women it’s okay not to breastfeed. Egger says Biomilq is not about replacing breastfeeding, but supplementing it. “If women can breastfeed even part of the time, they should be wholeheartedly supported in doing that,” she says. “We just see this as an opportunity for them to actually continue to enable that process and not having to feel guilt or shame or frustration.” She draws a particular contrast with formula companies, which have used aggressive tactics to get into hospitals and influence breastfeeding recommendations. Over the course of the 20th century, these standardized cans of formula often came to replace the highly personalized breast milk of mothers.The irony is that if human milk from cells, as a concept, really does take off one day, the more successful it is, the more likely it is to become formula 2.0: another practical, standardized, and commercial product. In fact, formula companies are already adding sugars called “human milk oligosaccharides” to their products, to sell formula that they can say is closer to breast milk.
2020-02-27 17:30:51
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
A Forgotten Forest of Ancient Trees Was Devastated by Bushfires
Deep in the rain forest on the southern edge of Australia’s Nightcap Range, around 200 unassuming gray trees are among the last survivors of a fallen world. These are Eidothea hardeniana, trees that trace their roots to the bygone supercontinent of Gondwana, where long-necked sauropods grazed on towering conifers and flowers were an evolutionary novelty.The Eidothea lineage has survived the fracturing of its continent and the cosmic catastrophe that ended the age of the dinosaurs. But it might not survive the disaster now facing it, living in a biosphere that’s been vandalized by humanity.Tens of millions of years of tectonic transfiguration and the slow desiccation of Australia have steadily eroded Eidothea’s territory, constricting its two living species to patches of forest along the continent’s eastern coastline. One of those species, Eidothea hardeniana, or the Nightcap Oak, occupies just a few acres of land in a rain-forest preserve. The grove’s adult trees resprout over and over by cloning, and some of them are likely to be many thousands of years old.This past bushfire season killed at least 10 percent of the population. It was the worst in living memory—a disaster brought on by a multiyear drought, months of extreme heat, and the warming, drying effects of humanity’s fossil carbon emissions—and up to 30 percent of Eidothea hardeniana’s grove was harmed by fire. For a species that numbers so few, Robert Kooyman, a botanist at Macquarie University, told me, “losing any individuals is a disaster.”“Elements of what you lose … are irreplaceable,” he said. “If we’ve lost some of its genetic diversity, in evolutionary terms that’s lost forever.”[Read: How long will Australia be livable?]While the Nightcap grove is ancient, the scientific community was unaware of its existence until a few decades ago. In 1988, Kooyman was walking along a creek in a remote part of Nightcap National Park when he discovered a juvenile tree with elliptical, sawtooth-edged leaves he couldn’t identify. The tree seemed to have some affinity to Proteaceae, an early family of flowering plants with a lineage going back more than 120 million years. But its identity would remain a mystery until Kooyman returned to the same patch of forest 12 years later and came upon specimens of the same type of tree in different stages of growth: a seedling, a sapling, and an adult tree with fleshy golden fruits underneath it. When he returned a few months after that, he discovered its tubular, cream-colored flowers.With the entire life cycle of the plant now evident, Kooyman and fellow botanist Peter Weston of the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney soon confirmed that the tree was, in fact, a member of Proteaceae. They set about formally describing the species, and in 2002, they gave it a name: Eidothea hardeniana.Eidothea was a goddess from Homer’s The Odyssey, a daughter of Proteus, with extraordinary powers. Hardeniana, meanwhile, paid homage to Gwen Harden, a prolific botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden who was on the brink of retirement.“We regarded Gwen as something of our goddess of the rain forest, but she’d never had a species named for her,” Kooyman said. “To support women in science and acknowledge her incredible contributions, we named our newly discovered goddess for Gwen.”The mythological epithet is appropriate in more ways than one. Based on DNA evidence, researchers have estimated that the Eidothea genus evolved more than 70 million years ago, deep in the history of flowering plants. At that time, Antarctica, Australia, and South America’s Patagonia region were stitched together into an evolved form of Gondwana blanketed in temperate rain forest. Many of the plant lineages found growing in the Nightcap area today, including araucaria and eucalyptus trees and evergreen tree ferns, are present in Gondwanan fossil beds from Argentina to Antarctica, suggesting Eidothea is part of a primitive botanical community that spanned the supercontinent.[Read: The bleak future of Australia wildlife]“It represents an ancient lineage from an ancient family,” Peter Wilf, a paleobotanist at Penn State University who studies remnant Gondwanan forests, told me. “It also represents an ancient type of forest.” In fact, ecological surveys suggest that in addition to sheltering dozens of threatened endemic animals, the Nightcap area is more “Gondwanan,” floristically speaking, than any other place in Australia.“It’s a true refugia,” Kooyman said—an area that serves as a sort of biotic bomb shelter where species can survive geologic upheaval.Now, it’s a shelter in crisis. In early November, a lightning-sparked blaze flared up near Nightcap National Park’s border, and before long, the grove’s understory had started to burn. With firefighters’ resources stretched thin and the weather working against them, not every leafy resident could be saved.When Kooyman traveled to the Nightcap area in late November to start assessing the damage, he found a grim sight. All of the ground-level shrubs and ferns had been burned away; piles of smoldering wood lay everywhere. Charred rain-forest trees were split and dying. Adding to the surreal quality of the scene, the forest canopy remained largely intact: an umbrella of green over a blackened forest floor.“It was pretty distressing,” he said.Working with members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s Saving our Species conservation program, Kooyman quickly set up a series of forest-monitoring plots, which have become the site of a morbid science experiment. As researchers assess the fire’s impacts on dozens of rain-forest species in the Nightcap area, they’re monitoring these plots over time to see how many trees succumb to the knock-on effects of fire damage. As Kooyman explained, if heat or fire penetrates the thin bark of rain-forest trees, they can develop fatal vascular embolisms or fungal infections long after the flames have passed.[Read: Australia will lose to climate change]Kooyman’s biggest concern is that the loss of even a few individuals could deal a crippling blow to Eidothea hardeniana’s gene pool. Early genetic work spearheaded by Maurizio Rossetto at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney revealed that the species is remarkably diverse given its small population size. If the recent mortalities included some of the most genetically distinct individuals, the species’s ability to adapt to long-term changes might be severely diminished.“Losing 10 percent of stems doesn’t necessarily mean you’re losing 10 percent of evolutionary potential,” Rossetto told me. “It will depend on what has been lost and the distribution of individuals.” Once Kooyman’s ongoing surveys have painted a clearer picture of which trees have been killed by the fires, Rossetto and his team plan to revisit their genetic data to quantify the evolutionary impact.Because the fires occurred before the fruiting season, new Eidothea hardeniana seedlings could take root this year. Even adult trees that were severely affected might yet be able to put out new suckers, or sprouts. But Eidothea hardeniana grows slowly, and in a fragmented habitat, where local fauna doesn’t seem to find its fruit particularly palatable, its ability to spread is limited. Humans could help by actively propagating the tree into other suitable habitat areas, Rossetto said; Kooyman, by contrast, emphasized the need to redouble conservation efforts within the Nightcap area by clearing out encroaching weedy vegetation and felled timber left behind after historical logging.However, centuries could pass before any new seedlings reach reproductive maturity, Kooyman said. And with Australia’s fire season rapidly worsening, as humans pump heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere at a rate not seen in the last 66 million years, the next pyrotechnic assault could arrive long before that.The Gondwanan glory days are over, and in geologic terms, time capsules such as the Nightcap area were on their way out. But humanity has “really kicked things forward,” Wilf, the paleobotanist at Penn State, said, pushing species such as Eidothea hardeniana that much closer to extinction and threatening to sever our connection to an ancient world far sooner than nature intended.“It is tragic to think about,” he added. “These are plants that have survived an enormous amount of global change—immense global cooling, continent splitting.” But with Eidothea hardeniana’s lone life raft now breaking apart in a geologic eyeblink, the survivors might not be able to chart an evolutionary escape route fast enough.
2020-02-25 16:11:44
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Legacy of a Hidden Figure
In 1958, not long after the pivotal launch of Sputnik, American engineers were preoccupied with spaceflight. Every day, engineers at the Langley laboratory, in Virginia, contemplated orbital mechanics, rocket propulsion, and the complicated art of leaving Earth—they needed to catch up with the Soviet Union. Katherine Johnson’s job was to prepare the equations and charts for this work. But she wasn’t allowed inside the room where any of it was discussed.“Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?” Johnson asked the engineers, as Margot Lee Shetterly wrote in the book Hidden Figures.“Girls don’t go to the meetings,” her male colleagues told her.“Is there a law against it?” she replied. There had been, in other cases; one prohibited black people from using the same bathroom as white people.But Johnson already ignored those laws at the office, and she kept asking about the meetings. Eventually the engineers relented, tired of saying no over and over again. She made it into the room, and well beyond that.Johnson, who died this morning at the age of 101, spent more than 30 years at NASA, where she provided the complex calculations for the country’s most important missions, from the first journey to the edge of space to the triumphant landing on the moon.Johnson’s talent and contributions are well documented now, but for most of her life, her efforts went unrecognized—until Shetterly published her book in 2016, and the film it inspired became a blockbuster. For the first time, a wider swath of the world learned about Johnson and how she made a place for herself in American spaceflight. The book chronicled the lives of Johnson and the other black female mathematicians who worked as “computers” at the Langley Research Center, using pencils and slide rules to calculate equations for the agency that would become NASA.[Read: Hidden Figures and the appeal of math in an age of inequality]The sciences are well known for their infuriating tendency to overlook important figures who aren’t white and male. But the stories of these women in particular had been buried so deep in the archives of history that when Shetterly brought them to light, it felt like a revelation. In her late 90s, Johnson was finally celebrated—widely and loudly—for her contributions to one of the most iconic accomplishments of the 20th century.She was inundated with press coverage, had buildings renamed in her honor, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The burst of overdue recognition didn’t seem to faze her. “There’s nothing to it—I was just doing my job,” she said in a Washington Post interview in 2017. “They needed information and I had it, and it didn’t matter that I found it. At the time, it was just a question and an answer.”Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to a schoolteacher and a farmer. She had a sharp mathematical mind as a child, and by the time she was 13 years old, she was taking classes at West Virginia State College, where she later earned her degree. She briefly attended West Virginia University to study for a master’s degree in math, becoming one of the first black students in the program, before leaving to start a family. She was teaching at a black public school in Virginia when a relative told her about job openings with Langley’s cadre of human computers, led by another black mathematician, Dorothy Vaughan.Johnson arrived at Langley in 1953. At a place like Langley, any woman would have faced sexism in that era; Johnson and her colleagues had to confront the racism of the time, too. A cardboard sign on a cafeteria table, delineating where “colored computers” could sit, had been done away with by the time she got there, but the signage over the bathrooms remained. Johnson focused on her work. “She didn’t close her eyes to the racism that existed,” Shetterly wrote. “But she didn’t feel it in the same way. She wished it away, willed it out of existence inasmuch as her daily life was concerned.”[Read: The women who contributed to science but were buried in the footnotes]By 1958, the year NASA was formally established, Johnson was known for her keen eye and precision. As engineers considered what it would take to send the first American beyond the edge of space, she volunteered for work behind the scenes. “Tell me where you want the man to land, and I’ll tell you where to send him up,” Johnson told her boss. She ended up calculating the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s capsule from the time it lifted off the ground to the moment it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean in 1961.Johnson was called on to do the same for John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, the following year. This time, the equations that would control the journey had been programmed into actual computers, and the astronaut was a little nervous about entrusting his life to this newfangled technology. Glenn asked the engineers to tell Johnson to crunch the same numbers by hand and check them before the flight. They were correct. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” he said.As the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated, Johnson contributed calculations that synchronized the Apollo 11 mission’s lander, which touched down on the lunar surface, and the command module, which remained in orbit around the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored. Without these efforts, the first men on the moon wouldn’t have been able to find their way home.Shetterly heard these and other stories of black mathematicians from her father, who worked as a scientist at Langley. During her early research for the book, the author shared some information about the women with experts on NASA history. “They encouraged what they viewed as a valuable addition to the body of knowledge, though some question the magnitude of the story. ‘How many women are we talking about? Five or six?’” Shetterly remembers them saying. By the time she finished her book, she had uncovered nearly 50 black women who had worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley facility from 1943 to 1980, and believed that “20 more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research.”While Johnson and her cohort of “computers” didn’t get the recognition they deserved at the height of the space race, their work has become part of the mythos of American spaceflight. But their story is also an object lesson in how history is written—who is included and who is not. The legacy that Johnson leaves behind is not just the equations she worked to help send astronauts safely up into space, all the way to the moon, and back again. Her story also reveals who gets left out of the stories America tells about its accomplishments. If Johnson and her colleagues are remembered, but the next group of “hidden figures” remains hidden, then we have not remembered her well enough.
2020-02-24 21:59:51
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Strange Influence the Sun Has on Whales
The first clear evidence that some animals have a magnetic sense came from a simple-enough experiment—put an animal in a box, change the magnetic fields around it, and see where it heads.German scientists first tried this in the 1960s, with captive robins. When it came time to migrate, the birds would hop in a particular direction, as if they innately knew the way to fly. But when the team altered the magnetic fields around the robins’ cages, the birds hopped along a different bearing. In later decades, researchers showed that other songbirds, sea turtles, spiny lobsters, bogong moths, and many other species can also be magnetoreceptive, using variations on this same experiment.“But you can’t really do that with a whale,” says Jesse Granger, a biophysicist at Duke University.Granger has good reason to think that whales should have a magnetic sense. “They have some of the most insane migrations of any animals on the planet,” she says. “Some of them almost go from the equator to the poles, and with astounding precision, traveling to the exact same area year after year.” But how? Smells will diffuse too broadly over such long distances. Visual landmarks like the sun or stars are useful, but whales also migrate on cloudy days.The Earth’s magnetic field is omnipresent, providing a reliable navigational guide even when other cues fail. It’s no coincidence that many of the species known to be magnetically sensitive are also those that undertake long migrations. So it’s easy to think that whales have a compass. It’s just hard to prove it.[Read: It’s tough being a right whale these days]Granger used a clever approach: She looked for data about whales that had gone off-course. Now and then, whales and dolphins will beach themselves, sometimes in large groups, and often with tragic results. These events have many possible causes—loud human noises, collisions with ships, disease. But in cases where stranded whales weren’t ill or injured, they might simply have made a navigational error. “If it’s near to shore, a small miscalculation could have led to a stranding,” Granger says. Perhaps, she reasoned, some whales run aground because their internal compasses temporarily go haywire. And while there aren’t many things that could conceivably disturb such compasses, the sun is one of them.Periodically, the sun throws a cosmic fit and unleashes a solar storm—streams of radiation and charged particles that affect the Earth’s magnetic field. Such storms could conceivably affect any animal that was magnetically sensitive. To see whether that might be true, Granger collected 31 years of data on gray-whale strandings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She looked at only events where the whales seemed healthy and unharmed. Then, she recruited an astronomer. Lucianne Walkowicz of the Adler Planetarium, in Chicago, was the perfect candidate: She’d originally wanted to be a marine biologist before she became an astronomer who specializes in solar storms. She worked with Granger to wrangle decades of data on solar activity. Together, the team found that strandings where whales were otherwise healthy and uninjured—186 events in total—were twice as likely to happen on days with a high count of sunspots, or black patches that are signs of solar storms. “We found a huge correlation,” Granger says. (For the stats geeks among you, the P value was less than 0.0001.)Initially, Granger thought that the whales might be thrown off by shifts to the Earth’s magnetic field, induced by the solar storms. But she found that such shifts don’t affect a gray whale’s risk of stranding. She then realized that the storms might be directly influencing the whales’ magnetic sensors, by releasing huge bursts of radio-frequency radiation. Indeed, Granger found that on days when radio waves from the sun are at their strongest, gray whales are four times more likely to strand. It’s not that the whales are sensing these waves directly—to our knowledge, no animal can do that, and they’d need eyes the size of a building to do so. It’s more that the radio waves might be screwing up the whales’ magnetic sensors, disrupting their biological compass.[Read: Why whales got so big]That’s just a hypothesis, though, and it’s hard to test because, despite decades of research, no one knows for sure what animals actually use to sense magnetic fields. Eyes see. Noses smell. Ears hear. But what’s the organ that senses magnetic fields?It’s been fiendishly hard to identify partly because magnetic fields suffuse the entire body, which means a magnetic receptor doesn’t have to be in an exposed body part, like an eye or ear. It could be anywhere. It could be an inconspicuous bundle of tissue that looks identical to everything around it. As Granger’s colleague Sonke Johnsen once wrote, finding the magnetoreceptor is like searching for a “needle in a needle stack.”There are two strong possibilities, though. One involves a mineral called magnetite, whose crystals act as small, rotating magnets. The other involves a chemical reaction that likely occurs in the eye, and that’s influenced by the direction of the magnetic field. Theoretically, radio-frequency noise could also influence that reaction, which might explain how it could send a migrating whale off-course. (It’s unclear whether human-made sources of radio waves could have the same effect, but such sources are likely to be much weaker than a solar storm.)Other researchers have found similar evidence. One study found that whales are more likely to strand at places along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard where local magnetic fields are weak. Another found correlations between whale strandings and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. A third found that migrating robins can be sent off-course by artificial magnetic fields that simulate the effects of a solar storm. And a couple of studies found that racing pigeons were slower to find their way home on days with lots of sunspots.Neither these studies nor Granger’s can provide conclusive evidence that whales have a magnetic sense; they only reveal correlations. Still, such correlations exist, and are strong. They’re also hard to explain away. It’s not as if stranding whales are affecting the sun, and if there’s some other independent factor that’s tied to both solar activity and whale strandings, it’s hard to imagine what that might be.[Read: Is the world’s largest animal too reliant on the past?]Granger’s study also has an important strength that’s missing from much of the research into magnetic senses—a large sample size. Many researchers run experiments with just a small number of animals, which might explain why the study of magnetoreception is so full of retracted and disputed findings. Granger couldn’t work with any animals, but she could amass decades’ worth of data on whale movements, solar activity, and more.“This study has been done in a particularly rigorous way,” says Kenneth Lohmann from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It might imply that whales might have a magnetic sense, but there are also (equally controversial) reports that solar storms could affect animal health. “It is conceivable that the effect on the whales involves something that does not directly tie into navigation,” Lohmann adds.Granger is now analyzing another set of data that tracked the movements of a pod of humpback whales over 12 years. She wants to see whether the animals deviated from a straight line on days with solar storms. Meanwhile, a team of NASA scientists is also looking at whether solar storms are connected to whale strandings.This link might seem far-fetched at first, but perhaps it shouldn’t. We have no problem accepting that animals behave differently during the day and night, and that’s essentially the same idea—electromagnetic energy released by the sun, traveling across astronomical distances, affecting the lives of animals on Earth. We can’t see radio-frequency radiation the way we can visible light, so its effects seem more mysterious; perhaps they shouldn’t be. Still, Granger admits that the idea of solar storms sending confused whales onto beaches does have the air of a fringe theory. “I’m probably going to get a lot of weird people emailing me,” she says. “Whales certainly use geomagnetism to navigate, but many factors contribute to whether they are successful over long distances, including both natural factors and human-caused ones, like sonar use or ship strikes,” Walkowicz says. “This project has driven home for me that biology—and particular animal behavior—is extremely complicated. Thank heavens I just do astronomy.”
2020-02-24 18:00:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Voters Really Care About Climate Change
Updated at 1:05 p.m. ET on February 21, 2020.It’s not a fluke, an error, or an outlier. In poll after poll, the results are clear: Climate change is one of the most important issues in the 2020 presidential election.A new survey, released today and provided exclusively to The Atlantic, only drives the point home: Climate is the clear number-two issue—second only to health care—for Democrats who live in one of the upcoming primary or caucus states. Among all voters, the warming planet is now one of the most salient issues in American politics. The poll was conducted by Climate Nexus, a nonpartisan nonprofit group, in partnership with researchers at Yale and George Mason University, and included nearly 2,000 registered voters.Climate change now sits alongside only four other mainstays—health care, the economy and jobs, immigration policy, and Social Security—in its ability to command the electorate’s attention. And for self-described liberal Democrats, climate change is now nationally the most important issue, beating out 28 others, Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at Yale, told me.“This is the first time in American political history where climate change is not just a top-tier issue—it is the top-tier issue,” ​said ​Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which helped conduct the new poll​.Yet while Democrats have grown ever more alarmed by climate change, self-identified Republicans remain largely unmoved. In the poll, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say climate change is one of their top two issues, and they support more aggressive policies. This reflects a deepening divide among Americans: Climate change, Leiserowitz said, “has become more polarized now than any other issue, including abortion.”[Read: A very important climate fact that no one knows]The Climate Nexus poll was conducted online from February 6 to February 9, among 1,934 respondents in 26 states. Each of those states—they include Nevada, South Carolina, California, and Texas—will hold a Democratic primary or caucus between now and March 17. Climate Nexus then weighted the responses from each state in line with Census Bureau estimates of local age, gender, race, education, and Hispanic demographics. In addition to the Yale team, Climate Nexus partnered with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication for the poll.The poll’s results fit into a remarkably consistent pattern: American voters are taking climate change seriously. Last March, a CNN/Des Moines Register poll found that climate change was a top-two issue for Iowa Democrats. Since then, the same results have kept showing up in opinion surveys, exit polls, and Associated Press vote-cast data, Leiserowitz said.Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center announced that a majority of Americans now say dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Since 2016, that number has increased by 14 percentage points. And in another all-time high, nearly as many Americans (64 percent) now rank protecting the environment as highly as they do strengthening the economy, the Pew report found.Some of this effect may reflect President Trump’s broad rejection of climate policy and embrace of fossil fuels. It is common for public polling to swing in the opposite direction of the incumbent president’s policy views, a phenomenon that political scientists call “thermostatic public opinion.”And while the polling shows that concern about climate change is growing, it also reveals that views are divided by party. “Over the past five years, public concern about climate change has soared, particularly among Democrats. It’s also gone up substantially among independents, but it’s stayed relatively flat among Republicans,” Leiserowitz said. Last month, a separate study from the Yale and George Mason University teams found that ideology and partisan affiliation still strongly predict a voter’s views on the climate. While more than 70 percent of Democrats say that global warming is caused by human activities, only a slim majority (51 percent) of moderate Republicans agree, as do only 25 percent of self-described conservative Republicans.The new poll, which was conducted using different methods, shows some signs of that disconnect. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they were very worried or somewhat worried about climate change, it found—more than those who said the United States is on the wrong track (52 percent) or approved of Donald Trump’s performance as president (45 percent).Those worries matched a growing desire for stronger climate policy, the poll found. Among all voters, seven out of 10 said the government should do more about climate change. Fifty-nine percent of respondents went further, saying they would strongly or moderately support a Green New Deal. Only 25 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat opposed such an aggressive measure.More moderate policies were more popular. Nearly three-quarters of all voters said they wanted a candidate who would set stronger pollution standards, and 70 percent said they wanted the next president to strengthen federal fuel-economy standards. (As I reported earlier this month, the Trump administration has fought for years to weaken the fuel-economy rules.) And nearly four in five voters, from all parties, support providing “assistance, job training, or guaranteed wages” to workers from the oil, gas, and coal industries who have lost their jobs.Not every climate policy commanded a majority. Roughly the same percentage of voters (42 percent) support opening up new federal lands for oil and gas drilling as oppose it (41 percent), the poll found. Every Democratic presidential candidate, from Amy Klobuchar to Bernie Sanders, has said they oppose such an expansion.Perhaps the most intriguing finding: Large majorities of voters want most future energy infrastructure to come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. More than 70 percent of voters said that they would support requiring 100 percent of electricity in their state to come from wind and solar plants by the year 2050. Most respondents said such a policy would boost the economy, lower electricity costs, and help rural and farming communities in their state. Most also said it would have either a positive effect, or no effect at all, on workers’ wages and the unemployment rate. It’s a commonplace in climate politics that Americans love solar and wind energy, but this has not, so far, translated into market power for the technologies.[Read: How solar and wind got so cheap, so fast]The poll also asked about a series of head-to-head matchups between Donald Trump and one of the Democratic candidates.Michael Bloomberg fared the best here: 47 percent of respondents supported the former mayor, 40 percent supported Trump, and 13 percent said they weren’t sure. In the Sanders-Trump matchup, 47 percent supported Sanders. But fewer voters (11 percent) were unsure in this scenario; 43 percent supported Trump. In the Buttigieg-Trump matchup, 45 percent supported Buttigieg, 41 percent supported Trump, and 14 percent of respondents said they weren’t sure. Joe Biden did nearly as well as Buttigieg, winning 45 percent to Trump’s 42 percent. Elizabeth Warren tied Trump in the head-to-head matchup, and Klobuchar lost by one point. In every case, the number of undecided voters was larger than the winner’s margin.The full list of states polled for the survey were—take a deep breath—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.It’s not as if candidates are ignorant of this shift in voter priorities. Every Democratic candidate has announced a climate plan and talks about it on the stump. (Even Trump alluded to a tree-planting plan in his State of the Union address.) In televised debates, such as the one earlier this week in Nevada, Democratic candidates hurried to bring up climate change before any questions about it were asked. The discussion hasn’t always been satisfying, Leiserowitz admitted, but “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re all elbowing each other to talk about it,” he said. “There’s a climate vote for the first time.”
2020-02-21 16:19:47
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Oil Industry Is Quietly Winning Local Climate Fights
Some of the most important fights over climate change aren’t being waged in Washington. They’re happening state by state, in a melee of utilities, fossil-fuel companies, state legislators, and persuaded voters.To see one in action, visit Beaver, Pennsylvania, where two Westinghouse nuclear reactors produce roughly a fifth of the Keystone State’s zero-carbon electricity. Three years ago, FirstEnergy Corporation, a private utility worth $28 billion, announced that it would soon have to sell the nuclear plants or shut them down. Even though the reactors were supposed to operate for another few decades, the plunging cost of natural gas had made them noncompetitive. Only direct subsidies could keep the plants alive, the utility warned.State lawmakers had not even proposed a bill floating that option when a new group called Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts burst onto the scene. Boasting support from local manufacturers and, unexpectedly, the AARP, the group told local reporters that it opposed “any legislative effort” to subsidize the plants. At the same time, a micro-targeted group of Pennsylvanians received a deluge of direct mailers, phone calls, and Facebook ads, exhorting them to call state senators to oppose a “nuke bailout.”“These billion dollar companies don’t need bailouts, they need to compete with other energy companies on a level playing field,” said one postcard-size mailer.A small disclosure on the mailers revealed that they had, in fact, not come from a group of self-organized Pennsylvanians. The mailers were funded and shipped by the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying champion for oil and natural-gas companies in national politics. The return address on the mailers was one of the group’s offices in downtown Washington, D.C.Three years ago, after Donald Trump’s election, climate activists and environmental leaders turned their attention to state and local politics. They have stacked up real victories since. In December, a bipartisan group of 24 governors declared that their states were “still in” the Paris Agreement on climate change. And Democrats in New York, New Jersey, and Washington State have passed major bills aimed at eliminating carbon pollution from their local economies.But climate activists have not been alone in switching focus to local politics: The oil industry has also pivoted. In the past few years, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and its allies have activated at the local level, fighting against—and occasionally beating back—climate-friendly policies in at least 16 different states. This surge of local activism has succeeded in slowing the growth of electric-vehicle sales and zero-carbon energy, experts say.Perhaps most surprising, the industry has not only focused on the states, but also actually borrowed tactics and ideas from climate activists. The API’s local campaign is designed around a concept—dubbed the social license to operate—that was first invented by risk analysts in the mining industry but that was popularized, more recently, by far-left climate groups such as 350.org. The idea is a name for American society’s invisible permission slip to the fossil-fuel industry: the unwritten contract that allows companies to frack, drill, build pipelines, run oil refineries, and sell carbon-intensive fuels.Since the mid-2010s, climate activists have focused on yanking that social license away. Now, the oil industry is pouring resources into an effort to retain it. Its activities “are having a tangible impact in preventing zero-carbon electricity and zero-carbon electric vehicles from getting adopted,” Josh Freed, the senior vice president of energy policy at Third Way, a nonpartisan think tank on the center-left, told me. In a statement, Bethany Aronhalt, a spokesperson for API, said that the oil and gas industry supported “new approaches, policies, and technological innovation to address the risks of climate change.” She listed a few policies—including the USE IT Act, a bipartisan Senate bill—that have won API’s endorsement. The USE IT Act would increase federal support both for capturing carbon from the atmosphere and for using that carbon to make fossil-fuel extraction more efficient.Last month, the API unveiled a huge new public-relations campaign, “Energy for Progress,” that cast its member companies as heroes in the fight against climate change. The campaign, which features images of happy young people in the woods, accompanied a systematic change in how API described itself. Its leaders now say it represents the natural gas and oil industry—with a big emphasis on the natural. But despite this new push, API does not support a carbon tax or any other policy that would reduce fossil-fuel use.And at the state level, few climate-friendly efforts have escaped the attention of API or the broader oil industry. In 11 states, the industry has fought new laws that encourage electric-car purchases. In five states, it has campaigned against extending the life of nuclear plants, which generate more zero-carbon electricity in the United States than any other technology. And across the Northeast, it has tried to stop the construction of transmission lines that would import excess hydroelectric power from Quebec.Of course, there are practical reasons for API to oppose such climate policy. Right now, API’s member companies command a massive market share of several sectors of the American economy. Gasoline and other oil-derived products generate 92 percent of the energy used to transport Americans and their goods—whether on the highway, on the water, or in the air, according to the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas generates more than a third of American electricity, and plunging prices mean that its share is rapidly growing.[Read: Investment bankers are now waging a war on coal]Every electric vehicle on the road cuts into oil’s share of the transportation sector. By the same token, every retired nuclear plant necessitates a new surge of natural-gas production. “The oil and natural gas that are staying in the market from [API’s actions] are much worse” than the alternatives, Freed said. The industry’s wake-up call may have come in 2018, when it faced two ballot questions in western states. In Colorado, voters were asked whether new oil and gas equipment, including fracking wells, should be set back 2,500 feet from homes and other occupied buildings. The industry plowed $41 million into defeating the question—and eventually won, persuading 55 percent of voters in the Democratic state to reject the effort. In Washington State, meanwhile, the industry dropped $31 million to fight a carbon-tax referendum, outspending supporters almost two-to-one. That effort—which was led by the Western States Petroleum Association, which works closely with API—also succeeded.In the past several years, the oil industry has also worked with groups funded by the Koch Foundation to engineer a nationwide decline in financial support for electric-vehicle sales. Today, only 15 states offer subsidies or support for electric-car buyers, down from an all-time high of about two dozen states in 2015. (The New York Times and Politico have both previously covered the state-by-state fight over EVs.)In many of its campaigns, the API has designed its approach around the social-license model, which has meant seeking legitimation from a surprising range of allies. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, it worked with the AARP and the United Pastors Network. While lobbying for new fossil-fuel infrastructure, it has allied with the Building Trades Unions and the Farm Bureau. And in its war against importing Canadian hydropower, it has even allied with local chapters of the Sierra Club. “Diversity is paramount,” said Tara Anderson, a former director of mobilization for API, two years ago, at a presentation on API’s strategy at the Public Affairs Council. She emphasized the importance of forming alliances with minority and citizens groups, according to her PowerPoint presentation. “Just because you disagree on one issue, doesn’t mean you will disagree on all—accept that,” the presentation said.API sees those coalitions as core to its social-license strategy. It has backed up its push with digital advertising and local engagement. In 2018, Anderson said that API could micro-target 43 million people in every congressional district. API has spent more than $1.9 million on Facebook ads over the past two years, with the large majority of that centered on “Energy Citizens,” a sophisticated campaign to convert people into highly activated opponents of energy regulation. Since October, the campaign’s targeted Facebook ads have encouraged New Mexicans to support a state-highway bill, exhorted Pennsylvanians to reject an infrastructure bill, and endorsed President Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada.Energy Citizens had 1.6 million members in 2018, according to Anderson’s presentation. In a statement, Aronhalt, the API spokesperson, described Energy Citizens as a “growing grassroots movement of millions of Americans across the country.”[Read: Railroads are a major but little-known supporter of climate denial]But API has not won every fight. Last month, New Jersey passed a new $5,000 tax credit for electric cars, one of the country’s most generous. And it has failed to stop efforts to subsidize nuclear plants in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. It also lost an effort to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants in Ohio. (“Every local effort is unique since every policy proposal, bill and regulation is,” said Aronhalt. “We work to support, amend, or oppose various local, state, and federal efforts on an ongoing basis.”)“In cooperation with API’s state petroleum councils, allied organizations, and partner trade associations, energy advocates sign up through social media [or through its website] to receive customized content to make their voice known by contacting or engaging elected officials. API facilitates the grassroots website and supports events to connect those who might be interested in energy issues in their state,” she said.Yet the extent and intensity of API’s work at the local level is a significant break with the past, experts say. “This is a new development,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara, told me. She studies how state governments have adopted climate policy—or not adopted it—over the past few decades.Historically, it’s been rare for API to fight against nuclear plants or block electricity infrastructure, she said. But it has gotten more involved in electricity policy since 2016, when it absorbed the American Natural Gas Alliance, the gas industry’s main trade group. While oil makes up a small share of the American power mix, natural gas plays a dominant role.But even if that merger had not gone through, oil and gas have unified interests right now, Stokes said. Both oil and natural gas are now extracted by the same companies, using the same fracking techniques, drilling in the same places. “Gas is coming up because of fracking, but oil is too. It’s possible [API] views electricity infrastructure as an important avenue for oil and gas in the future,” she said.That future is nearly a reality in Pennsylvania. State lawmakers and public-utility commissioners both rejected new subsidies for the two nuclear reactors in Beaver. The plants are due to close in 2021. They will join in the dustheap the state’s infamous Three Mile Island plant, which also closed last year. The electricity once generated by both nuclear plants will now likely come from natural gas. And thus the heat-trapping climate pollution emitted by Pennsylvanians will increase.
2020-02-20 19:55:57
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
A Huge Discovery in the World of Viruses
Your mouth is currently teeming with giant viruses that, until very recently, no one knew existed.Unlike Ebola or the new coronavirus that’s currently making headlines, these particular viruses don’t cause disease in humans. They’re part of a group known as phages, which infect and kill bacteria. But while many phages are well studied, these newly discovered giants are largely mysterious. Why are they 10 times bigger than other phages? How do they reproduce? And what are they up to inside our bodies? “They’re in our saliva, and in our gut,” says Jill Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the team that discovered the new phages. “Who knows what they’re doing?”From what Banfield and her team have been able to tell, though, these giants defy some fundamental ideas about how viruses usually work. And, even if it’s not yet clear how, they are likely affecting us.Banfield’s team found the huge phages by accident. She and her colleagues were studying the gut bacteria of Bangladeshi people who live near arsenic-contaminated groundwater, to see whether those microbes can detoxify arsenic. They can’t. But among the bacterial DNA, the team also noticed the unexpectedly massive genomes of several new phages. An average phage carries about 52,000 “letters” worth of DNA, but these giants carried more than 540,000. And though the team first noticed them in Bangladeshi guts, they also found them in people from Tanzania, in pigs from Denmark, and in baboons from Kenya.Though common, these big phages would have been completely missed by traditional lab techniques. It used to be that scientists could only discover viruses by first growing them—and they often filtered out anything above a certain size. In science, you tend to find what you look for. The huge phages don’t fit the standard conception of what a virus should be, so no one went looking for them. But Banfield used a different method, which she pioneered in the 1990s: Her team took environmental samples—scoops of soil or drops of water—and simply analyzed all the DNA within to see what popped out. And once Banfield realized that the huge phages existed, it wasn’t hard to find more.[Read: Beware the Medusavirus]Her team, including researchers Basem Al-Shayeb and Rohan Sachdeva, identified huge phages in French lakes, in Tibetan springs, and on the Japanese seafloor. They found the viruses in geysers in Utah, salt from Chile’s Atacama Desert, stomach samples from Alaskan moose, a neonatal intensive-care unit in Pittsburgh, and spit samples from Californian women. All of these phages have at least 200,000 DNA letters in their genome, and the largest of them has 735,000.The team included researchers from nine countries, and so named the new viruses using words for “huge” in their respective languages. Hence: Mahaphage (Sanskrit), Kaempephage (Danish), Kyodaiphage (Japanese), and Jabbarphage (Arabic), but also Whopperphage (American English).These huge phages have other strange characteristics. With so much DNA, the viruses are probably physically bigger than typical phages, which means that they likely reproduce in unusual ways. When phages infect bacteria, they normally make hundreds of copies of themselves before exploding outwards. But Banfield says that an average bacterium doesn’t have enough room to host hundreds of huge phages. The giant viruses can probably only make a few copies of themselves at a time—a strategy more akin to that of humans or elephants, which only raise a few young at a time, than to the reproduction of rodents or most insects, which produce large numbers of offspring.Giant phages also seem to exert more control over their bacterial hosts than a typical virus. All viruses co-opt their hosts’ resources to build more copies of themselves, but the huge phages seem to carry out “a much more thorough and directed takeover,” Banfield says. Their target is the ribosome—a manufacturing plant found in all living cells, which reads the information encoded in genes and uses that to build proteins. The huge phages seem equipped to fully commandeer the ribosome so that it ignores the host’s genes, and instead devotes itself to building viral proteins.This takeover involves an unorthodox use of CRISPR. Long before humans discovered CRISPR and used it to edit DNA, bacteria invented it as a way of defending themselves against viruses. The bacteria store genetic snippets of phages that have previously attacked them, and use these to send destructive scissorlike enzymes after new waves of assailants. But Banfield’s team found that some huge phages have their own versions of CRISPR, which they use in two ways. First, they direct their own scissors at bacterial genes, which partly explains why they can so thoroughly take over the ribosomes of their hosts. Second, they seem to redirect the bacterial scissors into attacking other phages. They actually boost their hosts’ immune system to take out the competition.[Read: Even viruses can get infected with other viruses]All these behaviors are intriguing because they complicate the already heated debate about whether viruses should count as living things. Viruses share the same genetic material—DNA and RNA—that’s used in living cells, but cannot reproduce on their own and are completely dependent on their hosts. But in the complexity of their genomes, the giant phages certainly dwarf many organisms that are clearly alive—including bacteria that are also completely dependent on hosts for survival. Plus, the phages carry “all these bits of machinery that work with the ribosome and wouldn’t normally be in a nonliving thing,” Banfield says.There are several reasons to find out more about these large viruses. For a start, phages have medical uses. In recent years, doctors have repeatedly used phages to treat bacterial infections that resisted all conventional antibiotics and seemed incurable. Beyond that, much of what we know about how genes work, and many technologies for altering and cloning said genes, came about through studying a phage called lambda. “Intensive research on phages founded the field of modern molecular biology,” says Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University. “I bet these megaphages house a treasure trove of new biological functions, which can be tinkered with to make applications that are useful for medicine, industry, or the environment.”Future potential aside, the huge phages are almost certainly affecting us already. Phages control the communities of bacteria living in our bodies. They might defend us against dangerous microbes, or they could spread genes for resisting antibiotics among those microbes. Good or bad, parasite or mutualist, animate or inanimate: Phages seem to resist any possible classification. And they are clearly capable of more than scientists once expected. Just in the past few years, researchers have found phages that can eavesdrop on their hosts, and phages that protect their genes inside a capsule that looks uncannily like the nucleus of living cells.“Every time we make new discoveries about the virosphere,” Mya Breitbart, of the University of South Florida, says, “it changes our perspective on what even constitutes a virus and how blurry the lines can be between viruses and cellular life.”
2020-02-20 14:00:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
$10 Billion? In This Climate??
Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and the world’s richest man, announced yesterday that he would give $10 billion to fight climate change.He didn’t say much else. It’s not clear where the money will go, or how fast Bezos will spend it. He didn’t lay out a theory of change. In a 127-word Instagram post that doubled as a press release, he said only that a new entity, the Bezos Earth Fund, would support “scientists, activists, [and] NGOs—any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”This gift is undeniably important. It could, by some estimates, virtually double the amount spent on climate change by American philanthropists today. And it will likely reveal something counterintuitive about the state of global climate action. Even if you believe, as Bezos does, that climate change is “the greatest threat facing our planet,” spending $10 billion to fight it is still pretty difficult.Why? The first issue is organizational. “Dropping a big, fat check into the water is not necessarily going to make the sharks all swim in the same direction. It’s going to be either a feeding frenzy or a total mess until things get sorted out, and unfortunately we don’t have time to waste,” Daniel Firger, the managing director of Great Circle Capital Advisors, a climate-finance consulting firm, told me. (Until last year, Firger worked for the climate philanthropy of Michael Bloomberg, the Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City mayor.)[Read: How climate change could trigger the next global financial crisis]But the deeper challenge has to do with scale and imagination. There are only so many nonprofits and experts working on climate change. If a successful group has an annual budget of $10 million, then giving it $50 million will not necessarily make it five times as effective. Many helpful projects are probably too small for Bezos. “Across the entire landscape, there are not enough people and projects that can take the kind of capital we need,” Firger said.Bezos has pledged a titanic amount of money. If he spends it evenly across 10 years, he would immediately be the country’s biggest climate philanthropist. The Hewlett Foundation, which holds that title today, spends $120 million per year on climate projects. At roughly $1 billion a year, Bezos would more than octuple that amount. It is a testament to Bezos’s wealth that he could single-handedly devote $400 million a year to new-energy R&D, exceeding what the federal government spends on ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s advanced-research incubator—and still have $600 million a year left over for everything else.At the same time, $10 billion is not nearly enough to save the world. Consider the Gateway Tunnel, one of America’s largest pending public-works projects. When completed, the 11-mile tunnel will double the number of trains that can pass between New York and New Jersey at rush hour. If the United States hopes to flush carbon pollution out of its economy, it will have to complete many projects at the Gateway Tunnel’s size and scale. But the tunnel is projected to cost about $9.5 billion, or roughly $860 million per mile. Bezos’s magnanimous gift of $10 billion can buy one Gateway Tunnel.Of course, this is a slightly facetious comparison—it’s not like Bezos was planning to invest in tristate-area infrastructure. But any similar build-out would present challenges. Jenny Chase, a solar-energy analyst for BloombergNEF, told me in an email that $10 billion would not do much good supporting large-scale solar projects: There is already a surfeit of capital chasing them.[Read: Investment bankers are now waging the war on coal]Where could $10 billion go the furthest? It just may be politics. In 2016, the network of conservative groups run by the industrialists Charles and David Koch promised to spend about $900 million on the presidential election. Two years later, it pledged about $400 million to the 2018 congressional midterms. Both of those amounts, widely covered as unprecedented interventions in the political system, represented not only the personal donations of the Kochs but the pooled contributions of hundreds of like-minded donors.But with his $10 billion, Bezos could single-handedly spend comparable amounts on every presidential and midterm election from now to 2050—supporting climate-friendly members of Congress, governors, and presidents. Once in office, those politicians could then shake loose far more than $10 billion for tunnels, new rail projects, and everything else.And unlike other donors, Bezos—an accomplished blogger—is free to spend generously in politics. Because he pledged the $10 billion as a personal commitment, and not as an outlay from a preexisting foundation, Bezos is legally allowed to give it to political causes, as well as to candidates, parties, and super PACs. Wealthy foundations with dead benefactors cannot participate in the political system to the same degree.Of course, politics isn’t the only place he could spend. He could also endow prizes for people who build certain climate-friendly moonshot technologies, such as electric planes or cheaper batteries. Jenny Chase, the solar analyst, suggested in her email that Bezos build out zero-carbon power infrastructure in countries that would otherwise turn to fossil fuels: Perhaps he could add solar panels to every school roof in Indonesia, she mused. The climate scientist and policy guru Joseph Majkut dreamed on Twitter that Bezos could decarbonize a single U.S. state to demonstrate that it can be done: “Pour [money] into the state university, vocational schooling, community grants. Grease every wheel. All the human capital you buil[d] will diffuse to other jurisdictions,” he said.Bezos isn’t the only newcomer to the climate fight. In the past six months, investment banks and private-equity firms have pledged hundreds of billions of dollars to climate solutions. (Goldman Sachs committed $750 billion late last year.) What those bankers are discovering is that there are not enough projects to sop up the deluge. “I think it’s as much a failure of imagination as much as it’s a failure of the market,” Firger said.The success of those investments may turn on the same question as Bezos’s gift: Will climate solutions, long a tiny sector of the economy, scale up quickly enough to (1) guzzle the new flood of cash and (2) prevent the unthinkable? It’s going to be one of the most fascinating stories of the coming year—and one of the most important of the coming century.
2020-02-18 23:55:43
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
A Photographer Has Spent 20 Years Documenting Stillbirths
Since 1997, Todd Hochberg has been going to hospitals to photograph families after the death of a baby. These requests come at all times of day and night—more often at night, it seems, when it is a stillbirth. If he can, Hochberg will be there for the birth itself, and then in the emotional hours after as parents see and hold and even bathe their dead child while saying goodbye.For parents, these photographs document one of the worst days of their life. But they also represent the few cherished memories they will ever have of their child. Hospitals used to whisk stillborn babies away from their parents, but they now recognize the importance of memories in grieving. Many offer photography, along with mementos such as footprints and locks of hair. Organizations such as Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep also have a network of volunteer photographers around the country.Stillbirth affects about one in 100 pregnancies in the United States, which means that about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the U.S. every year. The cause is often unknown. Hochberg has photographed 500 to 600 families, including those whose infant died shortly after birth as well as those who lost an older child. He presents each family with an album with dozens of photos, sometimes as many as 130.In the early 2000s, Hochberg left a corporate photography job to pursue what he calls “bereavement photography” full-time. He doesn’t charge the families. Some of the hospitals he works with have found grants to fund his work. Otherwise, he relies on donations. “It’s nowhere near what I made as a corporate photographer,” he says. “It’s certainly my life’s work at this point. I don’t see myself doing anything else.”A transcript of our conversation follows. It has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.Sarah Zhang: There’s a lot of discomfort around death and dead bodies in our culture. You’ve been photographing families with their dead children for more than 20 years now. Has it changed how you feel about death?Todd Hochberg: For certain. My first experience with a stillbirth, I was there in the room when Mom delivered. It was like the first time I had witnessed an open surgery with a lot of blood—the odors of the chemicals as well as the blood and wound. This very small and very premature baby had somewhat translucent skin. And it was a bit disarming, but I caught myself. I took some breaths and I went with it. My fear and my anxiety vanished when I saw that baby in Mom’s arms, as she cuddled and was connecting with this baby outside the womb.A hospital chaplain visits as Roslyn cradles Anya. Two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Kira, anddad, Matt, sit beside them. Roslyn experienced a placental abruption after a car accident. (Courtesy of Todd Hochberg)Zhang: How did you get into bereavement photography?Hochberg: I had been working in health care as a medical photographer and corporate photographer for a large health-care system in Chicago. The hospital needed pictures of surgical procedures as well as for evidentiary purposes. And I was looking for something a little more meaningful in my work. I made a friend who was a chaplain who worked with these families whose babies died at birth or shortly thereafter. And I had been a collector of antique Victorian photographs, these memorial images in Victorian times with children. I’d go to flea markets and antique shows and they spoke to me somehow.Zhang: I’ve seen these Victorian photographs periodically go viral on social media, and they’re usually described as “creepy” and “unsettling.” What spoke to you in these photographs?Hochberg: The grief was very present for me. They were largely portraits of parents holding their babies. My intention, when I thought of doing this work, was to do a portrait. What I discovered was something very different: I wanted to tell the story of these babies and their parents and their experience.[Read: Why American babies die] Zhang: When I’ve talked with parents who have had a stillbirth, they talk about how they just have so few memories. The blanket, the hat their child wore—these small things really come to mean a lot. Do you see your photographs as helping these families document the few memories they do have?Hochberg: They have so little. The photographs are one more thing to help them bond and grieve more completely. They affirm their baby’s life, validate the feelings they’ve had. There could be many years of hopes and dreams for this baby’s existence, and to not have evidence—I use the term touchstones. The photographs become touchstones for a family’s own experience and their own feelings.I’ve been in touch with families from upwards of 20 years hence. When they have an anniversary, they’ll send me an email telling me how much these pictures are still helpful to them. And the siblings of these babies are upwards of 20 years old or 15 years old. They still look at them.Cody and Ethan hold Avery skin to skin, moments after his birth in the delivery room. (Courtesy of Todd Hochberg)Zhang: How do you approach photographing these babies, especially cases when they are very premature?Hochberg: I don’t shy away from the reality of what’s there. And I don’t retouch anything, meaning take away scar tissue or what have you. But I will photograph in such a way, for some of the pictures at least, that is kinder to the anomalies or the difficult presentation. I photograph in black-and-white. That makes softer the discoloration that often happens. There could be skin peeling or maceration. But I’ll photograph in such a manner to be kinder. I’m there to photograph the story and the family’s connection.I have a particular photograph that speaks to that, where the mother is holding this baby in the palm of her hand. Very young. It had spina bifida. I’m photographing at an angle below her. I’m on my knees, which I often do because I’m interested in seeing parents’ faces. There’s more intimacy in that. She holds this baby very close to her face, and she’s examining and tentatively looking over this baby. Her love and her grief are so present. I always try to photograph the babies in the context of being held, as opposed to lying in the bed or the warmer.Zhang: Is there a particular photograph or family that has stuck with you?Hochberg: I remember parents who had twins and one was stillborn. They knew he wasn’t going to survive delivery. It was a twin-to-twin transfusion. The other twin was in the NICU and Mom was in recovery. Dad decided he’s going to carry this stillborn baby to visit his twin in the NICU. He wanted his two sons together.A nurse caregiver looks on as Cody holds Avery to her chest. (Courtesy of Todd Hochberg)Zhang: What do parents usually do with your photographs? Do they keep them private or share them?Hochberg: It varies. I’ve been in people’s homes a few months later, and I’ve seen some of my images hanging on the wall and on the mantle. I have families, proud moms who post on their Facebook pages. Some will keep them very private and just share between themselves. Parents might want to have them in their home but might not want to look at them for a couple years, a month. In one case, it was two years, and I got a call or an email from a mom that said she’s finally ready to see them.[Read: What good is thinking about death?]Zhang: On your website, you write that “these photographs may be difficult for some people to view.” Have you had people who were angry or upset by your photographs? Why did you feel it was necessary to say this to viewers?Hochberg: I was aware early on, it wasn’t very present in the culture. Everywhere I went, if I talked about it to people and friends, there is this aghastness. Their faces turn red. And then they listen to me and I describe the benefits to parents. It’s not a voyeuristic thing. There isn’t one person I’ve talked to who hasn’t said, “Oh, yeah, my mother had that baby” or “my cousin’s uncle” or “My best friend’s sister had a stillbirth.” There’s all these stories that come out when people start talking.Dana and her daughters, Chloe and Kate, hold Henry. Henry died of a rare condition called bilateral renal agenesis, in which he was born without kidneys. (Courtesy of Todd Hochberg)Zhang: It sounds like the photographs have two different purposes. One is for the parents themselves. But as parents have shared them and your work has gained more attention, they have also opened up a conversation about stillbirth. Was the second purpose always on your mind, or was it something that you noticed later?Hochberg: I noticed it the second year I was doing the work. The chaplain I mentioned was a mentor to me, along with a nurse bereavement coordinator at the same hospital. They felt like, Other caregivers need to see what you’re doing. It wasn’t my idea. My intent then became, yes, help these parents first, but then also indirectly, through making these pictures for parents, by them showing their pictures to their friends and their neighbors and family members. It helped to change things a little bit …Do you want to hear a quote from a parent?Zhang: What is the quote?Hochberg: This is one of the families I’ve photographed: You have brought our son Jeremiah to life, giving him personality and a role of his own. In each record of our brief time together, you’ve captured the beauty of our son, his thick hair, his soft face and hands, his cuddly body. You’ve captured every nuance of emotion we experienced, things we didn’t even realize we were feeling. You have allowed us to experience it all again, every twist of the gut, every heartache, every proud moment, and especially the love. We value each feeling. You have validated our role in the experience by enabling us to share with our family and friends an important part of ourselves, a tale which could not be told adequately with words or even tears. You’ve captured the transformation that took place in our lives and hearts that night. We are not the same people we were before we met Jeremiah.
2020-02-18 16:00:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Pros and Cons of a Lunar Pit Stop
Last week, NASA put out a call for applications for its next class of astronauts. In recent years, when the agency has asked for résumés, the job was shuttling back and forth between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS). But for the first time in nearly 50 years, some of the aspiring space travelers might be training for a mission to the moon.President Donald Trump wants NASA to fly American astronauts to the lunar surface and beyond. Congress, the president said during his recent State of the Union address, should fund his administration’s new program “to ensure that the next man and the first woman on the moon will be American astronauts.” This effort, he said, would serve as “a launching pad to ensure that America is the first nation to plant its flag on Mars.” But what if NASA didn’t stop at the moon first? What if, instead of pouring time, effort, and money into reaching the lunar surface again, the space agency embarked on an unprecedented journey straight to the red planet?The moon-versus-Mars question is older than the Trump administration’s space ambitions. It has been debated since the last men departed from the moon in the 1970s, when NASA, having achieved a seemingly impossible feat, started pondering what to try next. The conditions that fueled the space program half a century ago—when less than a decade passed between John F. Kennedy’s vow to send a man to the moon and the Apollo moon landing—no longer exist (and unless you wanted to risk war, it wouldn’t be wise to replicate them). Neither does the budget that made it happen. So the country’s next chapter in exploring other worlds may be more open-ended than ever.Scientists have their own arguments for the most compelling celestial destinations and what humankind could learn from them. These arguments are, of course, subject to the whims of presidents, who have their own ideas about the nation’s space policy, a circumstance that has ended up swinging NASA priorities from one part of the solar system to another every eight years. In the most recent administrations, George W. Bush wanted to go back to the moon, Barack Obama didn’t, and Trump very much does. Presidents’ dreams are limited by others’ whims, too: Congress ultimately decides how much money NASA gets and for what.When Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, talks about the agency’s Artemis program for lunar exploration—named for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology—he describes the moon as a “proving ground” for Mars. If something went wrong there, astronauts could make it home in a matter of days instead of months. And while NASA’s newest moon rocket is currently behind schedule and over budget, at least the space agency knows how to build one already.“We need to crawl before we walk, much less run,” says James Rice, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute who spent 15 years working on Mars rover missions. “Say you’ve got a bunch of new camping equipment. If you’re smart, you’re going to learn how to use that in your backyard. You’re not going to go, say, out to Mount Everest and try to figure out how to work this stuff.”Supporters of a Mars-direct mission argue that, in fact, the moon is terrible practice for Mars. On the moon, astronauts don’t have to worry about surviving a plunge through an atmosphere; on Mars, they will. The tug of gravity is weaker on the lunar surface than on Mars. The moon is extremely cold, and a single day there lasts nearly an Earth month. By contrast, a Mars day is nearly equal in length to an Earth day, and a summer day on the red planet, near the equator, could feel as pleasant as a spring day on our own.[Read: When a Mars simulation goes wrong]Even the dust on the two planets is different. Lunar dust is a fine powder of tiny particles with jagged edges, and, as the Apollo astronauts learned, nearly impossible to brush off spacesuits and equipment. Martian dust is more like that found on Earth, and less likely to shred human lungs if it’s accidentally breathed in. “If we had done lunar sample return prior to sending Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface, I’m convinced it would have been decades before we sent people to the moon,” says John Grunsfeld, a retired NASA astronaut and a former associate administrator of the agency’s science division. “The medical community would have gotten those samples back, looked at them in the microscope, and gone, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s broken glass at the micron scale. The astronauts will inhale it, hemorrhage, and die on the moon.’”One of the most promising discoveries on both Mars and the moon is water, but how that water is situated varies between the two. Spacecraft and samples from the Apollo missions have shown that the moon has potentially massive amounts of water frozen as hard as granite in deposits deep at its poles, which future astronauts could mine for their life-support systems. But the icy water on Mars may be more evenly distributed just beneath the surface. The technology that future astronauts would use to extract water from ice on the moon could be overkill on the red planet.After half a dozen landings that supplied hundreds of pounds of lunar samples that have been carefully studied for decades, the moon may feel pretty familiar to us. But it still has its mysteries, and scientists are eager to probe them. Mars has its mysteries, too, including one that might answer one of humankind’s most existential questions. While the moon is generally understood to be lifeless, on Mars “you can actually go look for signs of existing life on the surface,” says Briony Horgan, a planetary-science professor at Purdue University who works on NASA’s Mars missions, including a rover that is scheduled to launch toward the planet in July. “We can do that with robots, but it’s hard.” (Take it from the little Mars spacecraft that landed last year, ready to drill into the soil to measure seismic activity, and became stuck almost immediately.)Grunsfeld, the former astronaut, believes that NASA has already shown it doesn’t need the moon to go to Mars. The agency has proved it can keep astronauts healthy for long stretches in space; Christina Koch just came home after nearly a year on the International Space Station, a record for a woman. A journey to Mars would expose astronauts to more cosmic radiation than they experience on the ISS, though, which could increase their lifetime risk of getting cancer. When I asked Grunsfeld about that, he launched into a list of dangers so harrowing, it would be difficult to fault aspiring astronauts for quietly rescinding their applications: “How does that compare to the risk of blowing up on the launchpad or on ascent; getting hit by a meteor, asteroid, debris, some kind of space junk on the way there; burning up in the Mars atmosphere; burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere on the way back; or missing the Earth? You add up all those risks, and the [risk of radiation exposure] is kind of just another one.”Even Apollo astronauts think it’s time to shoot for Mars. Michael Collins has said that he sees “more moon missions as delaying Mars, which is a much more interesting place to go.” Buzz Aldrin has been writing op-eds for a decade urging the nation to focus on Mars. Outside NASA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently developing a spaceship and rocket powerful enough to head right to Mars. The pro-Mars camp has even included, at least for a time, Trump himself, when, in an uncomfortable rebuke of his own administration’s policy, he tweeted last summer, “For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon. We did that 50 years ago.”[Read: Why SpaceX wants a tiny Texas neighborhood so badly]Money, however, is decidedly one of the limiting factors. “If we went all in—if we had an Apollo-like budget—we could probably get to Mars without going to the moon within 10 years,” says Chris Carberry, the CEO of Explore Mars, an industry group that advocates for sending people to Mars by the 2030s. (With that kind of budget, Carberry says, NASA might not even have to choose between the two worlds.)A Mars journey would still be difficult, of course. There are some engineering problems that money alone can’t solve. NASA has a better success rate of landing on Mars than any other space agency in the world, but the missions that have touched down were small rovers, not spaceships full of astronauts. And no agency has ever launched anything back off Mars, an important detail if you want any of those astronauts to come home.While Carberry believes that NASA technically could mount a Mars-direct mission, a pit stop on the moon would help. But it would have to be short: An extended stay on the lunar surface, or even outpost-construction projects, could leave less room (and cash) for a journey to Mars, he says.For now, the Trump administration is moving ahead with its goal to land the next man and the first woman at the lunar south pole in 2024. Last week, the White House presented Congress with its budget request for NASA for the next fiscal year, which seeks a 12 percent increase over current funding. NASA’s Mars goal remains the same as it has been for the past decade: Astronauts would make a few orbits around the planet and back in 2033, followed by a second mission that would touch down.NASA has presented these journeys as inevitable, but they grow more nebulous with time. For some perspective: The world is now closer to 2033 than it is to Y2K. And if Musk gets to Mars first, the federal government might have trouble convincing the public that it needs taxpayer money to fund something a rich guy is already doing on his company’s dime. And how, in the coming years, might the government convince Americans that exploring another planet is worth it as climate change transforms their own?Rice, the moon fan, says that if and when NASA goes to Mars, whether or not it stops on the moon along the way, astronauts should land rather than just loop around. Otherwise, he says, the trip would be infuriatingly anticlimactic: “It’s akin to flying across the Atlantic, going to Paris, pressing your nose up against a French bakery, looking at the pastry, and then coming home.”
2020-02-18 14:47:16
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Power of the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ Three Decades Later
Thirty years ago, a spacecraft, bound for the edges of the solar system, turned back toward Earth and took a picture.The image, shown below, came to be known as “Pale Blue Dot.” It was captured on February 14, 1990, by Voyager 1, a robotic explorer built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The spacecraft had flown past Jupiter and Saturn and sent beautiful close-ups and exciting scientific data back to Earth. After Saturn, the spacecraft was destined to spend its remaining years in deep space. There would be nothing but darkness, punctuated occasionally by the twinkle of distant stars. There was no reason to keep Voyager’s cameras on for that, and NASA wanted to conserve the spacecraft’s power. So, before turning the cameras off, NASA engineers directed Voyager to take one last look at home.In the photo, three dusky beams of color—sunlight light scattered by the cameras—cut at an angle against the charcoal darkness of space. Inside one of the beams, near its middle, is a faint speck of light blue. From 3.7 billion miles away, you’d have to squint to see us.JPL-caltech / nasaThe view inspired the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who came up with the idea for the final glimpse, to write his most famous words, in his 1994 book: Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. A mote of dust indeed. No offense to Sagan, but when I saw “Pale Blue Dot” for the first time, I was underwhelmed. It was the summer of 2015 and I had accompanied my friend Amanda Cormier to a tattoo parlor in Washington, D.C., where she got the image inked on her left forearm, just above the elbow. She picked color ink: red, green, and yellow for the streaks of light, blue for Earth, and red for a little arrow that points at the dot. I looked up the real image while I waited. Huh, I thought. That’s pretty fuzzy. Can’t really see anything.Now, after more than three years of writing about space, I still think the “pale blue dot” isn’t much to look at. But when I sit with it and really think about what’s inside the frame, I am in awe.[Read: The aging spacecraft of deep space]Looking at this distant view of Earth, I feel the same way I do when I watch astronauts spacewalk outside of the International Space Station on NASA’s live-streams. The camera quality is grainy, the sound is staticky, and astronauts rattle off indecipherable jargon in serious voices. It is, if you watch seven straight hours of it, pretty boring. But when you consider what the astronauts are really doing—not the slow and meticulous work of turning bolts and replacing batteries—the experience becomes something else. Human beings figured out how to build a home for themselves in the cold vacuum of space, filled with everything they need to survive, from breathable air to streaming TV and snacks, and now they’re dangling off the side of the whole thing as it travels at 17,000 miles per hour, and the only thing keeping them from floating into oblivion is a couple of fabric tethers. It is extraordinary. “Pale Blue Dot” is remarkable in a similar way—a display, however fuzzy, of humankind’s capacity to catapult away from our planet in an attempt to understand everything else.This week, I emailed Amanda, who lives in Berlin now, to ask her why she decided to get the tattoo; she’d told me it was meaningful for her the day she got it, but I couldn’t remember the specifics. “I wanted to have a permanent reminder of how small my daily problems and heartbreaks were in the scheme of the universe,” she said. “I wanted to be able to look down and think, Oh yeah, none of this matters, so just try to be kind and grateful and enjoy yourself.”It is a lovely perspective, this view of outer space as salve, and it could be quite effective; after all, there’s no bigger picture than the entire universe. But more often, especially these days, I’ve heard a darker interpretation of our smallness in the face of celestial forces. A small corner of the internet invokes the workings of the cosmos as a way of dismissing depressing headlines here on Earth. Yes, everything is awful, such people half-joke, but who cares? We’re all going to perish during the heat death of the universe, anyway. Didn’t you hear our sun will collapse in on itself in less than 5 billion years? Or that the Milky Way is expected to collide with another galaxy even sooner?[Read: How the sun could make a new batch of planets]At the risk of sounding too earnest—but what else are anniversaries for?—I hope “Pale Blue Dot” inspires the opposite. Believing that one-10th of a pixel on a screen is going to bring people comfort is foolish, of course. But it’s something.And where is Voyager 1, the machine that provided this modicum of peace? Even farther from us, in the space between stars, growing weaker each year. Some of its scientific instruments are still functioning, collecting data on the few phenomena of interstellar space that can actually be detected that far out, such as cosmic rays and magnetic fields. The cameras have been off since 1990; they use up a lot of energy. Candy Hansen, the NASA scientist who helped set up the shot for “Pale Blue Dot,” once told me that turning them back on again “would literally kill every other instrument on the spacecraft.”Space agencies have far more advanced spacecraft now, capable of capturing worlds in high resolution. Hollywood spoils us with vivid special effects in big-budget space movies. By comparison, the Voyager photo doesn’t dazzle the eye. But it can, in some circumstances, soothe the rest of us.
2020-02-14 13:45:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Cascading Consequences of the Worst Disease Ever
Karen Lips could hear that the frogs had gone. Since 1997, she had been working in the national park near El Copé, Panama—an area whose forests were rich in amphibians, and whose air resounded with their croaks and ribbits. But since 2004, when a deadly fungus called Bd swept through the region, that chorus has all but disappeared. “It’s pretty obvious,” says Lips, who is based at the University of Maryland. “You don’t hear them. You go out at night, and you know numbers are down.”Bd, or Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, is a pathogen like no other. While most diseases affect a few host species, Bd indiscriminately kills amphibians—an entire class of animals. In El Copé alone, it wiped 30 species from the region, and reduced overall amphibian numbers by more than 75 percent.This sudden froglessness has consequences, some of which are apparent to human senses. The streams, for example, are now slippery and hard to walk through, because the rocks are overgrown by algae that was once eaten by frog tadpoles. Other changes are harder to pinpoint. Many frogs are food for snakes, and if the prey vanish, the predators should suffer. But tropical snakes are notoriously hard to find: They’re not vocal like frogs, can remain motionless for hours, and often blend into their backgrounds. Besides, many are naturally rare. “I could go to a site, and if you asked me how the snakes are doing, I wouldn’t know,” Lips says.Still, she tried to find out. She and her team, including snake expert Julie Ray of Panama’s La MICA Biological Station, conducted more than 1,000 surveys of the El Copé region. They began in 1997, anticipating Bd’s onslaught, and for 13 years found, identified, and counted every reptile and amphibian they could. Before the epidemic, the team saw 30 snake species. Afterward, they saw just 21.That seems like clear-cut evidence of a decline, but it’s not. Some of the snakes are so rare that during the team’s years of work, they saw 12 of the species just once. And they only saw a few of these after Bd had passed through. It’s not as if those snakes had suddenly migrated into the area; they were probably there before, and just hadn’t been spotted. But if that’s the case, how could the team possibly know if any of the trends in their data were real? If a snake was found in the pre-Bd era but not the post-Bd years, was it actually missing, or did the team just miss it?“I don’t think I appreciated how difficult it was going to be,” Lips says. “It took a long time to find someone to help us analyze the data.”[Read: The worst disease ever recorded]That person was Elise Zipkin. A number-crunching ecologist at Michigan State University, Zipkin specializes in estimating how animals react to changing environments, especially when the underlying data are imperfect. (“My job is making lemonade out of lemons,” she told me.) Working with Lips, she built a mathematical model that represents the snake community in El Copé. The model assumes that different species will vary in abundance—some extremely common, some extremely rare, and many in the middle. It then predicts how likely these species are to be in a given stretch of forest at any one time, and how likely a herpetologist walking through that stretch is to actually spot them. By looking at the model’s predictions and working backwards, Zipkin could use the number of snakes that Lips saw to estimate how many snakes there actually were at the time.Zipkin calculated that there’s an 85 percent chance that the number of snake species went down after Bd slaughtered El Copé’s frogs, and a 99 percent chance that the community became more homogenous—that is, what’s left is much the same everywhere. “That’s horrible,” says Patricia Burrowes, a herpetologist at the University of Puerto Rico. “When we homogenize a place like El Copé that’s so diverse, you end up losing amazing species—and those that are the rarest go first.”There are other worrying signs. Of the more commonly observed species, Zipkin estimated that around half declined in number after the epidemic, a quarter increased, and a quarter were unaffected. For the six species that were seen most often, four were smaller after the epidemic, and two were bigger. “Some things do better, but most things do badly, and everything looks more similar on a regional scale,” Zipkin says. The same trends befall most ecosystems under stress.“The picture that emerges is very concerning,” adds Ariadne Angulo, who co-chairs the amphibian specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Humans inadvertently spread Bd around the world, and can easily do the same for other wildlife diseases. “In a complex and globalized world where disease is easily moved across different ecosystems, the potential to wreak havoc is considerable,” Angulo adds.But the world is changing so quickly that scientists and conservationists are struggling to make sense of it. They’re having to rush species that once seemed stable into captive arks before they go extinct in the wild. They’re watching as years of work are undone by natural disasters, such as Australia’s recent bushfires, that are occurring on once-unimaginable scales. And more often than not, they have to deal with these problems using incomplete information. The natural world is in bad shape, but how bad? Which bits are most in need of help? The urgency of the world’s biodiversity crisis is growing, but the data about that crisis are as imperfect as ever.Many disagreements have sprung from that tension between knowing that there’s a problem and not knowing its extent. Other researchers have chastised the authors of the recent study that estimated how many amphibian species have been affected by Bd for using weak evidence and poor data-handling practices that have made it hard to replicate the results. (The critique, and the authors’ response, is set to be published soon.) Another prominent study which claimed that 55 percent of the ocean is fished was slammed for looking at the seas at too low a resolution; a different team, using the same data, calculated a figure of just 4 percent. A third study which looked at changes in North American bird populations was criticized for overplaying a splashy stat—3 billion fewer birds since 1970—over subtler details, some positive and some negative. A much-hyped narrative about a looming insect apocalypse has been questioned because there’s only long-term data for a vanishingly small proportion of insect species.[Read: The alarming case of the missing insects]Scientists, on average, tend to be cautious types. They’re less likely to cry wolf, and more likely to say that the evidence suggests that a wolf is around but we’d ideally like to see more data before coming to firm conclusions. But in many cases, the problem is not that they haven’t done the work to get data. It’s that they have no option for collecting more.Consider El Copé. Here was a team of experts who had funding for many years of surveys, and who knew that Bd might hit their region and so could start doing censuses before that event. And yet, they could barely collect enough information on the local snakes to analyze because, well, fieldwork is hard. It is difficult enough to assess obvious animals like elephants and giraffes, let alone smaller, rarer, well-camouflaged species, like snakes. Zipkin’s solution was to offer probabilities instead of hard, media-friendly numbers. “It’s hard for us to pinpoint how many species there were before and after, and there’s a wide range of possible numbers,” Zipkin says. Instead “we can talk about the probability of decline. That’s the best we’ll ever be doing, because there’s no scenario where we could just collect more data. We now have probably the strongest evidence that we’ll ever have that there are cascading effects.”Is that enough? Will an 85 percent chance that snakes have been hit resonate as strongly as, say, the alleged disappearance of 3 billion birds? “This is a very common problem for conservation,” adds Lips. “You know that something is wrong and you have a gut feeling that things are much reduced, but to have the robust scientific data that you need to support your claim and get policy change … that can be very difficult.”
2020-02-13 21:00:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
How Hospitals Changed Their Approach to Stillbirth
Updated at 1:45 p.m. ET on February 13, 2020AARHUS, Denmark—When Ane Petrea Ørnstrand’s daughter was stillborn at 37 weeks, she and her husband spent five days in the hospital grieving with their dead daughter’s body. They held her and cried. They took photos. They welcomed family and friends as visitors. And then they brought her home for four more days, where she lay on ice packs that they changed every eight hours.If you had asked Ørnstrand before she herself went through this in 2018, she might have found it strange or even morbid. She’s aware, still, of how it can sound. “Death is such a taboo,” she says. “You have to hurry, get the dead out, and get them buried in order to move on. But that’s not how things work.” In those moments with her daughter, it felt like the most natural thing to see her, to hold her, and to take her home. The hospital allowed—even gently encouraged—her to do all that.This would have been unthinkable 30 or 40 years ago, when standard hospital practice was to take stillborn babies away soon after birth. “It was ‘Go home and have another and forget about it,’” says Dorte Hvidtjørn, a midwife at Aarhus University Hospital. Since then, a revolution in thinking about stillbirth has swept through hospitals, as the medical profession began to recognize the importance of the parent-child bond even in mourning. These changes have come to American hospitals, too.But Aarhus University Hospital, where Ørnstrand gave birth and where Hvidtjørn works, is unique even in Denmark for having a unit dedicated to perinatal loss, the medical term for when infants die shortly before or after birth. Whereas other hospitals in Denmark—and often in the U.S.—might discharge patients hours after a stillbirth, patients at Aarhus can stay as many days as they like. The two-room unit is separate from the maternity ward, where grieving parents might overhear crying newborns and celebrating families. When I visited last month, Hvidtjørn pointed out the double beds that sleep both parents as well as the lamps and wall art that softened the hospital setting. “We try to make it very homey,” she says. Some patients, like Ørnstrand, even choose to take their infants home. Here, midwives give the parents time and space to say hello and then goodbye.Over the course of the 20th century, grieving a dead infant went from a common experience in Western countries to a rare one. In the U.S., one in 10 infants died before the age of 1 at the beginning of the century. By the end, that number had dropped to fewer than one in 100. Stillbirth rates fell too. These statistics also coincided with a subtle but profound shift in the relationship between parent and unborn child. “The degree to which there’s attachments to the baby in utero and at birth has to do with the motivation and expectation that the baby is going to survive,” says Irving Leon, a psychologist and the author of When a Baby Dies: Psychotherapy for Pregnancy and Newborn Loss. And as parents more and more expected their unborn children to survive, they bonded more deeply with them before birth.Meanwhile, newly widespread ultrasounds in the ’70s made it possible to visualize the fetus, allowing parents to grow further attached to a child they could now see. And psychologists began emphasizing the importance of the mother-infant bond immediately after birth, establishing the norm still followed today of mothers holding newborns skin to skin. When parents lost a child through stillbirth, however, the medical system kept adhering to what one critical psychologist vividly called the “rugby pass management of stillbirth”—as in, the stillborn baby was passed back like a rugby ball and whisked out of the delivery room. The parents never saw the baby, as if not seeing meant not needing to grieve. Some bereaved parents found their feelings at odds with this view.“I sometimes tell my students that if you can find a textbook from the 1970s that talks about perinatal loss … whatever it says, do the opposite,” Leon says. “Literally, there’s been a 180-degree shift.” Instead of pretending the baby never existed, hospitals today usually offer mementos such as photographs, locks of hair, and footprints. Some ask parents whether they want to hold or see their child. Psychologists now emphasize the importance of getting to know the baby, even in death. “When you have someone who died that you know, you have memories: the sound of their voice, conversations, their favorite chair. When you have perinatal loss, you really have nothing,” Leon says. “Seeing the baby allows you to begin to bond and develop memories, which grieving is based on. It defines the baby as a son or daughter.”[Read: The high cost of having a baby in America]This is a guiding principle at the perinatal-loss unit in Aarhus, too. The midwives encourage parents to take photos, invite friends and family, even take the child home if they like. “It’s so important for parents to experience that they are actually parents,” Hvidtjørn says. This extends to the birthing process itself. The perinatal-loss unit only admits women in week 14 of pregnancy or later. At this point, mothers here are encouraged to give birth vaginally rather than go through surgery.* For Ørnstrand, who found out that her daughter had died after the baby stopped moving at 37 weeks, the idea of going through labor to give birth to a dead baby was initially unfathomable. She demanded a C-section. She just wanted it all to go away. “It’s easier to just take the baby out,” she remembers thinking at the time. “I don’t want to be confronted with it.” This is very common among mothers, Hvidtjørn says, but she and the other midwives still encourage vaginal delivery, both to avoid major abdominal surgery and to reaffirm their patients’ identity as parents in the grieving process to follow. (In Denmark, midwives, rather than doctors, attend most births, and Caesarean sections are generally not as common as in the United States.)Ørnstrand ultimately did go through labor to deliver her daughter. Her husband cut the umbilical cord. “It was quite a beautiful experience for the both of us. Terrible but beautiful at the same time,” she says. “I got to experience a lot of things which normal parents of living babies get to experience.” She found it empowering. Of the 600 sets of parents that have been in the perinatal-loss unit in Aarhus, according to Hvidtjørn, only one ended up getting a Caesarean section. “They are very proud,” she says of mothers who go through with vaginal delivery after perinatal loss. “It’s like, ‘I couldn’t give anything else, but I could give birth to my child and I did that as a mother.’”After birth, Ørnstrand remembers being scared to see her daughter. She and her husband made a pact that the midwives would tell them how the baby looked first. (Fetuses that die in the womb can sometimes have discoloration and maceration of the skin, and those that are younger than 20 weeks are very small and skinny.) Ørnstrand’s daughter looked normal, but she still remembers being reluctant, in the minutes after birth, to hold her dead daughter. “I think I was really confused and I couldn’t really wrap my head around that she was the child I had carried. It was weird for me,” she says. “But actually just a couple of hours later when I came to, I became just exactly the same way as any other parents and I wanted to hold her and wanted to kiss her and felt very protective of her.”After five days at the hospital, Ørnstrand first went home without her daughter, but she became so distraught, feeling she had left her child, that she went back to the hospital the next day to hold her. A midwife said she could take her home. “It was a hard decision because when you look at it outside, we were like, ‘You don’t take dead babies home. That’s kind of weird,’” she says. But once her daughter was home, it felt right. Not every woman experiences stillbirth the same way, but in the course of her own birthing experience, Ørnstrand found herself pushing up against the death taboo—and then pushing past it.In 2015, Hvidtjørn and her collaborators began collecting data for a study of grief after perinatal loss in 5,000 participants across Denmark—the largest cohort ever for this kind of study. Ørnstrand was among the participants. And one of the goals, Hvidtjørn says, is to follow outcomes specifically for parents who have been through Aarhus’s perinatal-loss unit.In the U.S., exact practices around stillbirth can vary widely depending on the hospital or even “who happens to be on staff that day,” says Joanne Cacciatore, who in 1996 founded the nonprofit MISS Foundation for families that have lost children and who has counseled many bereaved parents since.[Read: Why the C-section rate is so high]One of the more controversial issues, says Katherine Gold, a family physician at the University of Michigan, is whether parents should hold their infants after stillbirth, due to fear it would intensify grief. A 2016 survey conducted by Gold and her colleagues found that of 377 mothers who experienced perinatal loss, 90 percent held their infants after birth. Most of the mothers who did not said they were told they were not allowed; half of them regretted not being able to do so. (Of mothers who did hold their child, 1.5 percent had regrets.) On the other hand, some hospitals have started offering CuddleCots, essentially a crib with a refrigerated unit. The cooling slows down the changes that happen after death, allowing parents to bring the child home and extending the number of days they can spend with their deceased baby. The Aarhus University Hospital got a cooling cot in late 2018, too.Even as hospital practices have widely changed around stillbirth, a broader culture of discomfort with stillbirth remains. In 2012, when former Senator Rick Santorum revealed that he and his wife brought their son home when he died shortly after birth, it was derided as “weird” and “horrifying.” And several families who shared photos of their deceased infants on Facebook have found that their photos were reported for violating community guidelines.Ørnstrand didn’t quite understand the grieving process either until she went through it herself. She reflected on the things she did, which she was grateful to have done: going through labor, holding her daughter, taking her home. “If someone had told me about it and I hadn’t lost a child, I would think they were completely insane,” she says. The grief doesn’t entirely go away, but she cherishes those memories now.Last year, she gave birth to her second daughter, whose due date was exactly one year and one day after her first daughter’s. This coincidence caused her considerable dread and anxiety throughout the pregnancy, but everything went normally this time. When her second daughter is old enough, Ørnstrand will tell her about her older sister. She won’t forget.On the cold January day I was in Aarhus, Hvidtjørn pointed out the hospital windows to a dogwood tree in the courtyard. Its branches hung wide and low. She planned to make it a memorial tree, where parents of the perinatal-loss unit can hang a small memento with their child’s name. The idea came from Ørnstrand.* This article originally stated that at 14 weeks a child that had died in the womb must be delivered as a living child would. The perinatal-loss unit at Aarhus University Hospital encourages vaginal delivery, but surgical options also exist.
2020-02-12 21:10:31
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
‘We Knew They Had Cooked the Books’
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—On a drizzly day in January 2018, Jeff Alson, an engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency’s motor-vehicles office, gathered with his colleagues to make a video call to Washington, D.C.They had made the same call dozens of times before. For nearly a decade, the EPA team had worked closely with another group of engineers in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, pronounced nits-uh) to write the federal tailpipe-pollution standards, one of the most consequential climate protections in American history. The two teams had done virtually all the technical research—testing engines in a lab, interviewing scientists and automakers, and overseeing complex economic simulations—underpinning the rules, which have applied to every new car and light truck, including SUVs and vans, sold in the United States since 2012.Their collaboration was historic. Even as SUVs, crossovers, and pickups have gobbled up the new-car market, the rules have pushed the average fuel economy—the distance a vehicle can travel per gallon of gas—to record highs. They have saved Americans $500 billion at the pump, according to the nonpartisan Consumer Federation of America, and kept hundreds of millions of tons of carbon pollution out of the air. So as the call connected, Alson and the other EPA engineers thought it was time to get back to work. Donald Trump had recently ordered a review of the rules.Speaking from Washington, James Tamm, the NHTSA fuel-economy chief, greeted the EPA team, then put a spreadsheet on-screen. It showed an analysis of the tailpipe rules’ estimated costs and benefits. Alson had worked on this kind of study so many times that he could recall some of the key numbers “by heart,” he later told me.Yet as Alson looked closer, he realized that this study was like none he had seen before. For years, both NHTSA and the EPA had found that the tailpipe rules saved lives during car accidents because they reduced the weight—and, with it, the lethality—of the heaviest SUVs. In 2015, an outside panel of experts concurred with them.But this new study asserted the opposite: The Obama-era rules, it claimed, killed almost 1,000 people a year.“Oh my God,” Alson said upon seeing the numbers. The other EPA engineers in the room gasped and started to point out other shocking claims on Tamm’s slide. (Their line was muted.) It seemed as if every estimated cost had ballooned, while every estimated benefit had shrunk. Something in the study had gone deeply wrong.It was the beginning of a fiasco that could soon have global consequences. The Trump administration has since proposed to roll back the tailpipe rules nationwide, a move that, according to one estimate, could add nearly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Officials have justified this sweeping change by claiming that the new rules will save hundreds of lives a year. They are so sure of those benefits that they have decided to call the policy the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule—or SAFE, for short.SNAFU may be a better moniker. To change a federal rule, the executive branch must do its homework and publish an economic study arguing why the update is necessary. But Trump’s official justification for SAFE is honeycombed with errors. The most dramatic is that NHTSA’s model mixed up supply and demand: The agency calculated that as cars got more expensive, millions more people would drive them, and the number of traffic accidents would increase, my reporting shows. This error—later dubbed the “phantom vehicles” problem—accounted for the majority of incorrect costs in the SAFE study that the Trump administration released in 2018. It is what made SAFE look safe.[Read: The Trump administration flunked its math homework]Once this and other major mistakes are fixed, all of SAFE’s safety benefits vanish, according to a recent peer-reviewed analysis in Science. If SAFE is adopted into law, American traffic deaths could actually increase, carbon pollution would soar, and global warming would speed up.In other words, SAFE isn’t actually safe—and the Trump administration based its rollback on flawed math.Extensive interviews with key participants and a review of emails and documents reveal how this happened: The Trump administration kept the government’s top tailpipe-pollution experts from working on the tailpipe-pollution rule. For two years, rival bureaucrats at NHTSA and overworked Trump political appointees stonewalled the EPA team, blocked it from learning of the rollback, and prevented it from seeing analysis of the new rule. When the EPA engineers finally saw the flawed study and identified some of its worst errors, the same Trump officials ignored them.This may have been a series of legally fatal blunders. The EPA team identified the phantom-vehicles problem early in the process. Within weeks of SAFE’s publication in August 2018, analyses from outside economists and the Honda Motor Company vindicated the EPA team’s assessment. Those groups found that the SAFE study was a turducken of falsehoods: it cited incorrect data and made calculation errors, on top of bungling the basics of supply and demand. Not since 1999—when NASA engineers accidentally confused metric and imperial units when building and navigating the Mars Climate Orbiter, leading to the spacecraft’s eventual destruction—have federal employees messed up a calculation so publicly, and at such expense and scale. And the EPA team saw it coming.My reporting directly contradicts what EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told members of Congress last year. In a June letter to House Republicans, Wheeler said it was “false” that “EPA professional staff were cut out” of the rollback’s development.In a statement, an EPA spokesman did not directly deny my reporting. “As we’ve stated multiple times before, career and professional staff within EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation were involved in the development of this proposal and continue to be involved in the final stages as we work with NHTSA to finalize this rule,” said Michael Abboud, the agency spokesman. He added that the old rule was “unworkable” and rushed into law at the end of the Obama administration.A NHTSA spokesman declined to comment because the proposed regulation is under agency review. He referred me to older statements that said the EPA and NHTSA had reviewed “hundreds of thousands of public comments” and undertaken “extensive scientific and economic analyses” in the course of reworking the SAFE rule. A final version of the rule is expected in the next several weeks. But that new version of the SAFE study recognizes that the benefits of the rollback do not exceed its costs, according to a letter from Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, obtained by The Washington Post.If Carper’s allegation is true, that could doom the proposal in court. In fact, several legal issues could hinder SAFE. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act “requires” the EPA to regulate carbon pollution “from new motor vehicles.” But my reporting has found that NHTSA employees—and not EPA staff—actually wrote the first version of the rollback, raising questions about whether the rule is legally valid.Either way, the SAFE rollback has already caused chaos. Major automakers—some of which once begged Trump to weaken the rules—now despise SAFE, according to reporting in The Wall Street Journal. When Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, and Honda began negotiating a compromise version of the standard with California last year, the Trump administration smacked them with an antitrust investigation. (It dropped the probe last week.) A fifth automaker, Mercedes-Benz, also considered joining the truce with California, The New York Times reported over the summer. (Mercedes did not respond to a request for comment.)That chaos might have comforted Alson, who retired in 2018, and the other EPA engineers two years ago, as they sat slack-jawed in their conference room in Ann Arbor. Soon after unveiling the analysis, Tamm asked if anyone had questions. No one spoke. The meeting, originally scheduled to last an hour, adjourned after 30 minutes.“We couldn’t even bring ourselves to try to engage,” Alson told me. “We knew they had cooked the books so bad that there wasn’t any reason to talk about it.”Republicans will often claim that one federal rule or another meddles with an essential part of the economy. The tailpipe-pollution rules live up to the hype. They govern the place where the auto industry and the oil industry—two massive, planet-spanning businesses that together make up about 11 percent of American GDP—most often meet: the humble car engine.There’s no way around this. In recent years, nearly one-fifth of the country’s climate-warming carbon pollution has come from cars and light-duty trucks, according to the EPA. It’s inevitable: If you burn gasoline in an internal-combustion engine, you release carbon dioxide; if you want to release less carbon, you must burn less gasoline. Some car regulations—such as those addressing traffic-safety issues—require only that some new technology, such as an airbag or backup camera, simply be affixed to a car’s frame. But any carbon-pollution rule must go to the heart of a motor vehicle: the engine, power train, and air conditioner.Yet for decades, NHTSA—the traffic-safety arm of the Department of Transportation—set the nation’s fuel-economy rules. It was given that power for “purely political” reasons, says Lee Vinsel, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies American car regulation. “It had nothing to do with expertise.”Congress first established the fuel-economy standards during the 1970s oil embargo as a “panic mode” policy that would reduce cars’ use of fuel and, by extension, American dependence on foreign oil, Vinsel told me. But lawmakers split on which agency should set the rules.[Read: ]Climate change can be stopped by turning air into gasolineThe EPA, then a young office, had already started measuring fuel efficiency as part of a broader campaign to defend the new Clean Air Act. Yet neither the EPA nor the other agencies in contention, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce, won the support of Representative John Dingell, a powerful New Deal Democrat from Detroit. Although Dingell was an environmental champion who helped write the Endangered Species Act, his Michigan ties meant that he was “rabidly anti-regulation of the automobile,” Vinsel said. If fuel-economy rules had to pass, Dingell wanted to keep an eye on them. And he could do that through the Department of Transportation, whose purse strings he held via his seat on the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (which he later renamed the Energy and Commerce Committee).Dingell, second from left, at a 1977 breakfast hosted by then-President Jimmy Carter, center, in the Family Dining Room of the White House (AP Photo / Charles Harrity, File).So Congress split the difference. In 1975, it put NHTSA in charge of setting fuel-economy standards, but the EPA in charge of measuring them. From the very beginning, NHTSA needed the EPA’s data to do its job. It was the beginning of a corrosive rivalry between the two agencies.The messy setup worked at first. Over the next decade, the fuel economy of new cars doubled in the United States. But as global oil production increased and prices fell, the standards began to fester, and fuel economy stopped improving. By 2003, General Motors had even found a loophole in the law: It could sell SUVs so enormous, they fell outside the legal definition of a “light-duty vehicle,” such as the Hummer H2.Then oil prices soared again, and soon after, Congress moved to close the Hummer-size loophole in the law. But the real change came from the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the EPA must treat greenhouse gases from cars as it would any other air pollutant. If carbon dioxide is dangerous, then “the Clean Air Act requires the agency to regulate” it, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.It was a landmark shift. For the first time, the EPA had the legal power to fight climate change and regulate carbon pollution. The state of California, which retains special powers under the Clean Air Act, could regulate carbon dioxide too.Soon after Barack Obama took office in 2009, he ordered all three to work together. NHTSA’s fuel-economy standards should mirror, as closely as possible, the carbon-pollution rules passed by the EPA and the California Air Resources Board, he said.His order still holds. Today, three different entities—the EPA, NHTSA, and the California board—all have some power to regulate the carbon pollution of cars and light trucks in the United States.What resulted was one of the most effective climate protections in American history. The tailpipe rules, published by the three entities in 2012, required carbon pollution from new cars and light trucks to decrease every year until 2025. In exchange for several concessions, automakers even agreed to accept the rules without a lawsuit. This was virtually unheard of—seemingly every company fights new EPA regulations in court—but it was crucial for the White House. With the tailpipe rules on firm legal footing, the EPA could move to regulate carbon pollution in other parts of the economy.Most important, the rules worked. Over the past decade, the average fuel efficiency of new passenger cars has improved from about 31 to 39 miles per gallon, a record high. The biggest savings have come from bulky trucks such as the Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in the United States. Today, an entry-level F-150 uses two-thirds as much gas as the 2006 model did.[Read: Why California is environmentalists’ trump card]And then automakers began to fight the rule. Though the EPA had published rules out to 2025, the Obama administration told automakers that it would do a “midterm review” before the second phase (applying to cars in model years 2020 to 2025) kicked in. In July 2016, the EPA, NHTSA, and the California Air Resources Board completed the first step of that process, publishing a 1,200-page study that found the rules were still doable. But now car lobbyists began to fuss. The market had changed, and the rules needed to change too, they said.Trump’s victory that November seemed to seal their success. Two days after the election, automaker lobbyists wrote a jubilant letter to the president-elect, asking him to revise the 2020 to 2025 standards. Then, Obama-appointed officials and EPA staff panicked and rushed ahead with the midterm-review process. The EPA published a final version of the rules a week before Trump’s inauguration. But NHTSA did not follow suit.The rules’ publication infuriated car companies. And then Trump took office.On March 15, 2017, Donald Trump made his first visit to Michigan as president. Months earlier, he had won the state by a little more than 10,700 votes. Now, flanked by Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator, he announced to about 1,000 autoworkers that the White House would review and roll back the EPA tailpipe rules. “The standards were set far into the future—way, way into the future,” Trump said. “If the standards threatened auto jobs, then commonsense changes could have and should have been made.”In fact, the EPA and NHTSA had concluded a year earlier that the rules were likely to have only a small effect on jobs. (They may have boosted them.) As Trump made his claim at a former GM plant in Ypsilanti, many of the experts on the issue watched his announcement from their desk, 20 minutes down the road in Ann Arbor. No one from the EPA vehicles team was invited to attend the event, Alson said.It was a sign of things to come.Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, third from left, talk with auto industry leaders in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, in 2017 (REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst).A few weeks later, Bill Charmley, the longtime chief of the EPA vehicles team, called Jim Tamm, his NHTSA counterpart, according to documents obtained from a public-records request. The two men talked often. For years, their teams had held video or conference calls “almost every month and sometimes every week,” according to Alson. When deadlines approached, the teams talked “every single day.” And documents show that even in the waning days of the Obama administration, as the EPA moved to finalize the rules through 2025, Charmley and Tamm stayed in regular contact.But now Tamm seemed uninterested in the two teams ever talking or meeting at all. When a senior EPA engineer emailed Tamm to “follow up” on the call a week later, he struck an almost pleading tone. “I wanted to reach out to you [to] begin thinking about regular EPA and NHTSA coordination meetings,” the engineer wrote. “It is my understanding that we may not be in a position to start meeting, but hopefully the situation does not preclude us from thinking about what the meetings could look like if and when they begin.”There is no evidence Tamm ever replied to that message. A month later, a different EPA engineer asked again by email if the two teams could meet to discuss the rules, only to be rebuffed again by a NHTSA employee. “We need further discussion on our end,” the NHTSA employee explained.After years of close contact, the NHTSA team seemed to go dark to the EPA team. For nearly a year, the two teams “did not have a single technical phone call or meeting or email or anything” about the tailpipe rules, Alson said. “I’m an engineer and an introvert … but it felt like The Twilight Zone. Like, what is going on here?”At the same time, the EPA team received little guidance from its political leaders. President Trump appointed only one person—Mandy Gunasekara, a lawyer and longtime Senate Republican staffer—to oversee the massive EPA Office of Air and Radiation, which includes the Ann Arbor team. President Obama had appointed three people to manage the same office.“From March until October [2017], it was really just me figuring out the agenda” for the 1,000-person office, which also regulates coal-fired power plants and nuclear waste, Gunasekara told me. (She left the administration in 2019 and now runs Energy45, a pro-Trump advocacy organization.)The office’s leadership was so understaffed that Gunasekara spent her first months in the agency “just trying to figure out what all was going on,” especially regarding court deadlines, she said.With no clear path forward, the EPA team continued its work studying vehicle pollution. The lab measured new engines from Ford and Toyota, a time-consuming process that generated benchmarks showing an engine’s power, efficiency, and emissions.By the summer, the team began holding calls with carmakers and lobbyists to discuss the rules. Documents show that NHTSA was often invited to sit in on those meetings, but Gunasekara told me that its staff was not very involved. “They didn’t have political leadership at all,” she said.Yet public documents suggest that NHTSA was already doing its own work on the rollback. By July 20, 2017, crucial Excel files later used in the NHTSA cost-benefit study had already been created, according to the names and metadata of the files themselves.As the fall arrived, President Trump had finally chosen a political leader for NHTSA, and on October 25, the agency held a video call with the EPA. The meeting started warmly, with Heidi King, NHTSA’s new Trump-appointed chief, making little jokes, Alson remembers.Then Charmley, the EPA vehicles-team chief, began to present the work that his team had done in the previous year. The Ann Arbor lab had benchmarked engines, improved its model, and studied the costs of several new fuel-saving technologies. This presentation would turn out to be the EPA’s only chance to show “in no uncertain terms” that it had done new work that NHTSA had not considered, Alson said.As Charmley spoke, King started to look frustrated and became almost silent, Alson remembers.When it was NHTSA’s turn to speak, King and Tamm spent an awkward minute encouraging each other to start. Finally, Tamm began to talk. He broke the news that NHTSA had paid Argonne National Laboratory to study a Toyota Prius and Ford F-150, Alson said. But the EPA had already benchmarked those vehicles and several others. NHTSA had gone out of its way to avoid using the EPA data, seemingly as part of a larger campaign to avoid sharing any information with the EPA at all.The teams had only a few more meetings that year. Another video call between the teams, in December, ended as fruitlessly as the first had—its most memorable feature was the appearance of Bill Wehrum, a former oil-industry lawyer who Trump had just appointed to lead the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.So as 2018 arrived, the EPA team still knew virtually nothing about a rollback that had been announced 10 months earlier. But it still had hope. One more video call was scheduled for January 11, and—promisingly—no political appointees were scheduled to attend it. It would be just the old friends on the EPA and NHTSA career staff. “I remember one of my colleagues saying, ‘I think we’re going to get some numbers,’” Alson said.[Read: Trump’s fuel-efficiency rollback breaks with 50 years of precedent]They got more numbers than they bargained for. On that video call, the one Alson remembers so vividly, Tamm argued that the rules through 2025 could cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars.The engineers were gobsmacked. It takes time and effort to put together a cost-benefit analysis, which uses complex economic models to estimate vehicle prices, public-health outcomes, and the ebb and flow of the entire American private-vehicle fleet. For years, the EPA and NHTSA teams had collaborated when conducting such research.Not only had the NHTSA team secretly done its own analysis, but it now claimed that the rules—the same exact regulation it had judged in 2016 to bring $88 billion in benefits—imposed $230 billion of costs. Somehow, its calculations had shifted more than $300 billion in value.Alson felt repulsed by the distorted math. “It was almost like you don’t want to get close to it, don’t want to touch it,” he told me. And when Tamm said that the cost-benefit analysis was nearly finished, and that NHTSA hoped to publish the proposed rollback that spring, he confirmed Alson’s worst fear. The EPA team would have almost no ability to work on the rollback. It had been boxed out.Until recently, the EPA and NHTSA’s collaboration was seen as one of the most successful in the federal government.Two nonpartisan watchdogs—the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the U.S. Government Accountability Office—both published reports praising their work. In 2014, Tamm and Charmley shared a finalist spot for the highest award given to members of the federal civil service. “Charmley, Tamm, and their team of about 40 employees at two agencies,” bragged the citation for that award, together “surmounted complex technical issues.”But outside the public eye, resentments lurked. More people work at the EPA than at NHTSA, and EPA employees are generally thought to have more expertise. The EPA has better facilities: It can test engines in its lab in Ann Arbor, while NHTSA does not have an emissions lab at all. In that light, the public praise for the tailpipe rules may have seemed double-edged: The Government Accountability Office report lauded the EPA’s “original research” but lamented NHTSA’s “resource constraints,” and endorsed the new NHTSA computer model that was programmed “with EPA’s input.”Soon after Gunasekara started, several NHTSA career employees told her that the EPA had “rolled them in the 2012 rule,” she said. (When she asked EPA employees, “they had a totally different response,” telling her that NHTSA was still annoyed about several technical decisions, she added.)“It’s a small program at NHTSA, but they are ferociously bitter toward EPA for driving the train on the 2012 Obama standards, and they are determined to get back at them,” Mary Nichols, the chief air regulator for the state of California, told me.So the new situation was—at the very least—a reversal of sorts for the EPA team.Immediately after that pivotal January meeting, the EPA team asked NHTSA for a copy of the raw computer code used to generate its cost-benefit study. More than a month later, an engineer sent an email so oddly written and undescriptive that it was auto-sorted into Gunasekara’s spam folder. When she found it, the email didn’t even contain what the EPA had asked for: Instead of sending over raw code, the NHTSA team had sent a compiled program. This meant that EPA staff could not examine the model’s underlying calculations in full.The model also contained a built-in expiration date: It abruptly stopped working at the end of March 2018. When the EPA emailed NHTSA to ask for a new version of the program, the team received no reply.In spite of those limitations, the EPA team was able to find several problems in NHTSA’s math. In an April 2018 meeting with White House officials, Charmley explained several of them. NHTSA’s model, he said, appeared to add to American roads millions of vehicles that did not exist. This made it “unusable in current form for policy analysis and for assessing the appropriate level of the [NHTSA] or [EPA] standards,” his presentation said.Dick Swanson / DOCUMERICA / National ArchivesIt was the EPA’s first warning to the Trump administration that something had gone seriously awry. The next day—four months after the EPA had first asked for the modeling code—NHTSA finally sent the raw code for the analysis.The EPA team now acted quickly. In June, Charmley told the White House that the EPA had fixed key errors in NHTSA’s math—and that it had significantly changed the results of the NHTSA study. The rollback would actually increase fatalities, killing 17 Americans a year, he said.But White House and senior EPA officials declined to stop the rollback. Officials knew at the time that two of NHTSA’s models didn’t link up correctly, Gunasekara said, but they did not think it was worth pausing the process. “It’s like, okay, do we delay this for a week, which then becomes a couple of months at the tail end of the regulatory process? Or do we just know it’s not 100 percent and that’s okay?” she said. The Trump team thought the agency’s other concerns were mere “disagreements over assumptions,” she added.But the next month, the EPA team informed the White House of even more errors in NHTSA’s math. Again, officials declined to stop the rollback. So Charmley asked Andrew Wheeler, the new EPA administrator, for the Ann Arbor office’s name and logo to be removed from the rule-making—an extraordinary request that had never been made before. Wheeler accepted. “It was one of those things like … If that’s what you really want, we’re not going to argue over something like that,” Gunasekara said.The SAFE rollback was published on August 2, 2018.In fact, the flaws in the proposal far exceeded the normal scope of technical disagreements. In December 2018, 11 economists—including some whose research was cited by NHTSA in its flawed study—published a scathing assessment of the NHTSA-led analysis in Science. “The 2018 analysis has fundamental flaws and inconsistencies, is at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies, is misleading, and does not improve estimates of costs and benefits of fuel economy standards,” they wrote.The errors they and other independent analysts found are staggering in their scale. At one point, the NHTSA team forgot to divide by four. Elsewhere, it used bad data, claiming that, in the future, there will be fewer of certain types of fuel-saving engines than there are on the road already. But these errors pale in comparison to NHTSA’s insertion of millions of “phantom vehicles” onto American roads.Yet even after these errors came to light, Trump EPA appointees continued to let NHTSA officials dominate the process, my interviews revealed.In late 2018, officials gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to discuss the rollback and possible compromises. “In terms of the dynamics of the meeting, Heidi King spoke about three times longer than Bill Wehrum ever did,” Nichols, the California regulator, told me. It was “very obvious” that NHTSA officials would lead the process and that “whatever the EPA had to say was of no interest to them,” she added. And while some EPA career staff attended that meeting, they were not asked by the hosts to speak, she said.Surveying the rollback process as a whole, Nichols said: “The errors [administration officials] have fallen into are that they don’t know [anything] about how cars work.”The errors could now cause legal trouble for the SAFE rollback. Under federal law, an agency must publish a detailed and genuine explanation of any proposed rule-making. If it fails to meet that standard, then a court can toss out the new rule, pronouncing it “arbitrary and capricious.” The explanation for SAFE—at least in the proposal—does not appear to be genuine, since it contains fundamental errors that were identified before it was published.“You didn’t have the A team doing the analysis here… If you shut out the people who know what they’re doing, this is what you get,” Jack Lienke, a law professor at NYU and the regulatory-policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity, told me.“If the experts—who are actually within the agency issuing this proposal—thought that the assumptions being made were unreasonable, that makes a judge a lot more comfortable saying it is arbitrary and capricious.”In addition, the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 ruling gives the EPA—and not NHTSA—the exclusive power to regulate carbon pollution.The Trump administration has struggled to publish a final version of the SAFE rollback, pushing the deadline back several times. The extra time has only revealed new problems. Last month, Carper, the Democratic senator from Delaware, alleged that a new version of the NHTSA study admits that SAFE will impose $34 billion of costs on the American economy. (NHTSA had once promised $230 billion in net benefits.) The new study also admits that SAFE will cost consumers an extra $1,400 at the pump on average—and that SAFE will not save hundreds of lives a year, as it once claimed, Carper said.“This would seem to fly in the face of rational rulemaking, which requires the benefits to exceed the costs, not the other way around,” Carper wrote to a White House official, in the letter obtained by The Washington Post.In a statement, a NHTSA spokesman said SAFE would “ultimately” save lives because it would make new vehicles more affordable, and “new vehicles are safer than ever.”The Trump administration expects to publish its final version of the tailpipe rule in the coming weeks. No matter what form it takes, it will reverberate worldwide. Other countries both import used cars from the United States and adopt the American tailpipe standards wholesale. Canada implemented the 2012 version of the tailpipe rules nearly verbatim, and has no plans to change them.After the final version of SAFE is published, it will go to the courts. Its odds of survival are unclear. Historically, regulatory agencies win about 70 percent of their court challenges, Lienke said. Yet under the Trump administration, agencies have lost more than 90 percent of their cases, according to an ongoing tally from the Institute for Policy Integrity.Many of those losses came in cases like this one, in which agencies published false, misleading, or fundamentally erroneous explanations of their own rules. In June, the Supreme Court held that the Trump administration could not add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, because the Department of Commerce’s internal motivations did not match its publicly stated reasoning.Agencies must “offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion. “The explanation provided here was more of a distraction.”
2020-02-12 15:00:00
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theatlantic.com
Why SpaceX Wants a Tiny Texas Neighborhood So Badly
BOCA CHICA, Texas—Mary McConnaughey was watching from her car when the rocket exploded on the beach. The steel-crunching burst sent the top of the spacecraft flying, and a cloud of vapor billowed into the sky and drifted toward the water.McConnaughey and her husband had planned to drive into town that day in late November, but when they pulled out onto the street, they noticed a roadblock, a clear sign that SpaceX technicians were preparing to test hardware. She didn’t want to miss anything, so she turned toward the launchpad, parked her car at the end of a nearby street, and got her camera ready.The dramatic test was a crucial step in one of Elon Musk’s most cherished and ambitious projects, the very reason, in fact, he founded SpaceX in 2002. Weeks earlier, Musk had stood in front of the prototype—164 feet of gleaming stainless steel, so archetypically spaceship-like that it could have been a borrowed prop from a science-fiction movie—and beamed. He envisions that the completed transportation system, a spaceship-and-rocket combo named Starship, will carry passengers as far away as Mars. A few months before the explosion, hundreds of people came to the facility in South Texas, on the edge of the Gulf Coast, to see the spaceship, and thousands more watched online. “It’s really gonna be pretty epic to see that thing take off and come back,” Musk gushed at the event, as if he were seeing the finished Starship in front of him.[Read: SpaceX has starry-eyed ambitions for its Starship]McConnaughey was there, and even posed for a picture with Musk. At the end of the night, she made the short trip home to her house on a small road lined with stout palm trees. McConnaughey lives in Boca Chica Village, a tiny neighborhood located in startling proximity to SpaceX’s facilities. Many of the village’s residents have lived there for years, long before SpaceX arrived, some before the company even existed.Friction between next-door neighbors is quite different when one of them is a rocket company. Instead of an ugly fence, there might be an ugly fence with massive tanks of cryogenic liquid behind it. When residents find papers stuck in their front door, the notes don’t ask them to keep the noise down or clean up after their dogs; they warn them that their windows could shatter.Boca Chica’s residents have learned to live with a rocket company, or at least tolerate it, over more than five years. But SpaceX’s work is about to become even more disruptive. (The explosion certainly made that clear.) So the company has offered to buy their homes. Some have taken the offer. Others, such as McConnaughey, have rejected it, even as Musk prepares to launch a giant rocketship just a short hop from their houses. SpaceX is already hard at work on the next Starship prototype, and Musk says the company might launch it into orbit as soon as this year. “We love Texas,” James Gleeson, a SpaceX spokesperson, said in a statement, “and believe we are entering a new and exciting era in space exploration.”Few people in this part of South Texas could have predicted the recent trajectory of their life when SpaceX moved in. They have become space fanatics and legal experts, Musk supporters and thorns in his side, trying to make sense of their place in a strange story that could someday end millions of miles away from Earth. All because they got new neighbors.“They’re here to stay,” McConnaughey told me, “and they want us to leave.”Boca Chica is an unincorporated community of about 40 houses, mostly one-story homes with soft-orange brick exteriors, on the southernmost tip of Texas. There are no shops or restaurants or amenities of any kind around, including municipal water pipes; Cameron County regularly trucks in gallons of water, which is stored in outdoor tanks. Many residents are retired; they spend summers in northern states and flock south for the winter like migratory birds, eager for the peaceful stillness of the coastline.The only way to reach the village is via State Highway 4, a two-lane road that runs through mostly empty land. It originates to the west, in the city of Brownsville, and disappears into the shores of Boca Chica Beach, an eight-mile stretch of unspoiled sand, free of boardwalks and souvenir shops. About three miles south, through thick desert brush, is the Rio Grande, winding like a curled ribbon along the border. On a clear day in the village, you can see straight to Mexico.The residents of Boca Chica first learned of SpaceX’s plans at a public meeting in the spring of 2012. SpaceX was preparing to fly cargo for NASA to the International Space Station for the first time, and in anticipation of increased demand for the company’s services, Musk wanted to build “a commercial Cape Canaveral”—a launch site all SpaceX’s own, where Falcon 9 rockets could fly as many as 12 times a year. South Texas was one of several areas under consideration, in part because of its proximity to the planet’s equator, which spins faster than the poles, providing departing rockets with an extra boost. SpaceX also has a long history in Texas; it has tested rocket engines at a facility in McGregor, north of Austin, for nearly two decades.Hundreds of people went to the meeting in Brownsville, according to The Brownsville Herald. Some had concerns about the local fauna—Boca Chica sits in a national wildlife refuge, where each year more than 500 species of migratory birds funnel through and sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. But most people spoke in support of the project, which SpaceX promised would bring hundreds of jobs to the area. To residents of Boca Chica Village, the whole thing felt like a pep rally. For Brownsville, one of the poorest cities in the country, SpaceX seemed to offer an unlikely dream: the opportunity to turn a border town into a 21st-century space city.“Most of the kids that are fortunate enough to get a college education usually leave the area and they don’t come back,” Eddie Treviño, the county judge for Cameron County, told me. Treviño grew up in Brownsville, left for college, and then returned for good. “SpaceX may draw kids to either come back or maybe to stay,” he said.A few days earlier, SpaceX had bought its first piece of land from the county. Texas had heavily courted SpaceX since 2011 with millions of dollars in incentives and legislation that would limit public access to beaches along the Gulf. SpaceX, the thinking went, could commandeer the coastline as needed. A review by the Federal Aviation Administration eventually found that rocket operations wouldn’t cause any “significant” environmental impacts, clearing the way for SpaceX to get started. In the spring of 2013, hundreds of people showed up to another meeting, some in Launch Brownsville T-shirts, and a state official read aloud a letter of support from then-Governor Rick Perry.[Read: Elon Musk had a great week]Company reps did try to reassure the few villagers who attended the meeting about being so close to a launch site. “They said that we would be okay, that we wouldn’t even have to wear hearing protection,” McConnaughey said. “They wanted to be good neighbors.”SpaceX broke ground at the beach in the fall of 2014, and soon trucks made daily trips into Boca Chica, packed with soil that would provide a sturdy foundation for a launchpad on a bedrock-less shore, less than two miles from the village. State Highway 4, unaccustomed to so much traffic, stretched and cracked, so crews from the Texas Department of Transportation followed, patching the holes. A pair of massive antennae, shaped like mushrooms and larger than buildings, were shipped in from Cape Canaveral to track SpaceX missions.McConnaughey found herself spending hours outside nearly every day, a camera dangling from her shoulder. She had never considered herself a photographer, and usually got behind the lens only on family vacations. Now she was snapping pictures of hardware and sweaty technicians, like a wildlife photographer angling to capture an elusive creature.She posted the photos to a forum on nasaspaceflight.com, a community for space fans, with a watermark of her username, BocaChicaGal, in pink font. She learned a new language, writing on the forum—and eventually to her thousands of new Twitter followers—about leg mounts and bulkheads and stainless-steel coils. She learned to look for signs of activity, such as a raised construction crane, and stayed when she saw them, sending her husband into town to run errands without her. She usually goes to Michigan during scorching Texas summers, but she stayed put last year, intent on capturing the activity.“A lot of it is just right place, right time, being observant,” McConnaughey said. “You have to pay attention to what’s going on. You just have to be patient and ready and wait.”Elsewhere, SpaceX was making progress—punctuated by a fiery blaze or two. A Falcon 9 rocket exploded during takeoff. The company recovered a rocket booster after launching it into orbit, gently guiding it back to the ground, an industry first. Then another rocket blew up. The company got better at reusing boosters and returning them in one piece. In Florida, the inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in operation today, was a milestone for SpaceX, and, it turned out, for Boca Chica Village. “I think it gives me a lot of faith for our next architecture, our interplanetary spaceship,” Musk said at a press conference after the launch in 2018. Forget about routine Falcon 9 launches; he wanted to test this new vehicle, the Starship, at the company’s location in South Texas.“We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” Musk said.That December, a mysterious tower rose at SpaceX’s construction site in Boca Chica. Users on nasaspaceflight.com exchanged guesses about what the cylinder of patched-together metal could be. A water tower, probably. But then workers sliced holes into the structure and gave it legs.Gene Gore drove over early one morning. The sun hadn’t yet risen when he saw a gleam in the dark, next to the mystery structure. “I’d never seen a rocket, but it looked like the nose cone of a rocket,” Gore told me. “That was the first time anybody had seen it. And then it was apparent. Oh, they really are building a rocket here.”[Read: A historic rocket launch lights up the night]Gore, a South Texas native, has run a surfing company on nearby South Padre Island, a touristy resort town, since 1995, and operates a webcam for surfers checking up on the waves. “When they started building and you could see it, I’m like, ‘Whoa, we gotta point the camera over there,’ which kind of pissed off the surfers,” said Gore, who often surfs at Boca Chica Beach. “So I pointed it back, and then that pissed off the space people, and then I’m like, ‘I gotta buy another camera.’” On a clear day, you could see the earliest Starship prototype from the southernmost tip of the island, a tiny smudge of silver jutting into the blue sky.Brownsville residents started stopping by too. Austin Barnard, a student at Texas Southmost College, discovered SpaceX by accident, when a binge of Carl Sagan videos led the YouTube algorithm to suggest something from Musk. For Barnard, State Highway 4 is “the highway to Mars,” the first leg of a trip that humanity is destined to take. He likes to walk around the fenced-in SpaceX facilities, soaking in the sounds of the construction. At home, before he starts his homework, Barnard sometimes sits in his room in silence, practicing for the quiet isolation of a months-long mission to the planet.Around the time the “water tower” showed up, Rosemarie Workman and her husband were returning from Brownsville with groceries when their car was stopped near the village.Residents are used to checkpoints; there’s a U.S. Border Patrol stop on State Highway 4 when you’re heading toward Brownsville and away from the Mexican border. This checkpoint was different. Instead of a border agent in a dark-green military uniform or a car-sniffing German shepherd, a SpaceX employee approached their car and asked the couple whether they were “on his list.” Workman was stunned. She and her husband have owned their home in Boca Chica for 20 years. “I should not have to be on a list,” Workman told me. “Besides that, why would a SpaceX employee have authorization to stop me on a state highway and tell me I can’t go through?”To meet safety requirements from federal and county regulators, SpaceX sets up two checkpoints during launch operations, including testing. Only SpaceX personnel and village residents can pass through the first checkpoint, about 15 miles out from Boca Chica on State Highway 4; homeowners can add names to a list, but visitors must stay on their host’s property during road closures or they risk arrest for trespassing. No one is allowed past the second checkpoint near the village, beyond any homes and closer to the launchpad, an area the FAA says isn’t safe during testing.The road closures became a fact of life in Boca Chica. So did the intrusions of SpaceX operations, which reached a new intensity. Nearly every day, beneath the sound of wind blowing through dry grass and the staccato chirps of blackbirds, there was the clanging, whirring, and buzzing of construction equipment, the high-pitched beeping of trucks in reverse and cranes climbing high, the music the workers put on to entertain themselves. The work lasted through the night, beneath the glow of industrial lights. On windy days, pieces of plastic wrap drifted away from the construction site and stuck to the yucca trees. Some residents started calling and emailing county offices, state officials, federal agencies—anybody who could tell them whether any of this was sanctioned.All the residents I spoke with—close to a dozen—told me a version of the same story. Before SpaceX, the village felt like a coastal paradise, contentedly dislodged from civilization. At night, the only light came from the distant hotel towers on South Padre Island to the north and the Milky Way overhead. Now the place felt almost claustrophobic.[Read: The night sky will never be the same]In August, the Cameron County sheriff dropped off notices in the village. When they hear a police siren, the memo said, residents should step outside their home. Better yet, they should consider leaving for the day. SpaceX was scheduled to conduct an important test of Starhopper, an early Starship prototype, the one mistaken for a water tower. “There is a risk that a malfunction of the SpaceX vehicle during flight will create a overpressure event that can break windows,” the notice read. “It is recommended that you consider temporarily vacating yourself, other occupants, and pets from the area.” Before the flight, which was, at the time, SpaceX’s biggest Starship test, the FAA required SpaceX to increase its liability insurance, from $3 million to $100 million.Starhopper rose into the sky, climbing to a height of nearly 500 feet before levitating back down. McConnaughey watched from a safe distance, along with some SpaceX workers, who whooped and cheered as they watched. “It was just amazing,” she said.Musk was in awe too. “Congrats SpaceX team!!” he tweeted. “One day Starship will land on the rusty sands of Mars.”The letters, printed on SpaceX letterhead, arrived a few weeks later. “When SpaceX first identified Cameron County as a potential spaceport location, we did not anticipate that local residents would experience significant disruption from our presence,” the note read. “However, it has become clear that expansion of spaceflight activities as well as compliance with Federal Aviation Administration and other public safety regulations will make it increasingly more challenging to minimize disruption to residents of the Village.” (The FAA is in charge of approving SpaceX’s launch activities in Boca Chica.) The letters came with contracts, offering homeowners a deal to buy their home. Those who sold, SpaceX promised, were welcome to return for private, “VIP” launch-viewing events of Starship.The village residents had suspected that SpaceX would want them out someday. But some were still shocked by the letters, especially after they read what was inside.SpaceX had commissioned an appraisal of their properties, without their knowledge, and was now offering them three times the resulting market value. The process would be handled by JLL, a commercial real-estate company. SpaceX gave the residents two weeks to respond.Some signed the contracts, but many didn’t want to leave. A sale at triple a property’s worth certainly sounds generous. But the appraisers SpaceX hired hadn’t even stepped inside their homes, the residents said, to see the new plumbing and air-conditioning systems they had installed, or the fresh tiling and gleaming backsplashes. JLL conducted a second assessment, and this time appraisers took pictures of the interiors. But when residents saw the new evaluations, some were insulted—the comparable homes the appraisers had listed included foreclosed houses and properties with foundation issues. (SpaceX declined to comment on property negotiations.)SpaceX still tried to be neighborly, in a way. The company invited residents to Musk’s Starship presentation days after the letters came. Those who RSVP’d rode in a sleek black van to the control center, where Musk showed off the latest Starship prototype. Afterward, the residents were herded into a room stocked with soft drinks and snacks, while elsewhere Musk took questions from reporters—including about buying out the village. When he was done, he joined them for about half an hour and, with the help of a SpaceX lawyer, tried to reassure them about the buyout process. Musk told the residents that they could stay in Boca Chica as long as they were willing to put up with the “inconveniences” of living next door to a spaceship construction site, McConnaughey said. He warned them there would be more.[Read: The outdated language of space travel]A week before Thanksgiving, Celia Garcia Johnson got on the phone with Elizabeth Clampitt, a senior vice president at JLL and the residents’ point of contact for the buyouts. Garcia Johnson has loved Boca Chica Beach since she was a little girl growing up in nearby Brownsville, and bought two homes in the village, one in 1991 and the other in 2004, with the hope that someday her two sons would inherit them. Like some of her neighbors, she found and paid an appraiser to conduct another review, which came up with higher values. JLL rejected the appraisal. So Garcia Johnson told Clampitt that she wasn’t taking SpaceX’s offer. Clampitt said SpaceX wouldn’t come back with another.Garcia Johnson described the conversation: Clampitt told her, “Well, I’m going to talk to you like I would talk to my mother or my aunt, someone that’s close to me. If you don’t sell at our prices, we’re going to close the books on you, and the houses are going to the county.” (SpaceX declined to comment on this conversation, and Clampitt did not respond to a request for comment.)SpaceX can’t force the residents to leave, but the county can. In 2013, county commissioners established a corporation “to assist in the promotion and development of a spaceport project” in Cameron County. Under Texas law, the corporation has the authority to exercise the same right that lets governments take over private property and compensate its owners. When we met, Treviño, the county judge, told me that while he sympathizes with the residents, the use of eminent domain in Boca Chica Village is “probably a distinct possibility.” The law is on SpaceX’s side. A 2005 Supreme Court ruling expanded the definition of public use, the legal justification for eminent domain, to include economic development, and since then, states have taken advantage of that leeway: Texas, for instance, claimed dozens of homes to make room for a new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. “That is something, unfortunately, that happens way more than it should,” Renée Flaherty, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C., told me.Flaherty first heard about Boca Chica in the fall. “Those people were already there and [SpaceX] brought a nuisance to them, and now it’s escalated to the point where the nuisance is so severe that they’re telling them that they have to leave their own property,” said Flaherty, a Texas native herself. If the county moves ahead with legal proceedings, she believes that the remaining residents would have a case for eminent-domain abuse.“We’re watching the situation very closely,” Flaherty said. (She has been in touch with several residents. She doesn’t represent them, but is considering making a trip to Boca Chica.) “I don’t like to make threats, and I never do make threats, but we are watching. I think it’s probably a very good thing if they know that someone has an eye on them.”Today, Boca Chica is busier than ever: As Musk put it recently, SpaceX is “going max hardcore” on production of the new Starship prototype. Fresh cracks have appeared in the asphalt of State Highway 4, and this month, SpaceX asked federal regulators for permission to launch the newest Starship vehicle almost halfway to the edge of space sometime in 2020. Musk wants to put people on board this year too.In the village, residents see SpaceX workers moving around the homes the company now owns, lugging in furniture and paint and carrying out old carpeting. And judging by the cars that stay parked in the driveways overnight (including Teslas, another product in the Elon Musk firmament) residents suspect that the employees have begun sleeping there. At one property, a chain-link fence has been replaced with a wooden one, and someone strung up small twinkle lights—the kind that might illuminate a cozy outdoor party—over the yard. As some residents are packing up to leave, SpaceX is settling in.For McConnaughey, watching her neighbors trickle away has been difficult. She felt a twinge of sadness when she saw SpaceX workers trimming the grassy median on her street. “It’s just something that we’ve always done,” she said.Cameron County is a far cry from Cape Canaveral, but the infrastructure to support a departure gate from Earth is slowly emerging. The county has spent millions of dollars to spruce up a park at the southern end of South Padre Island as a prime viewing spot for future launches, installing an amphitheater, event center, pavilion, and boardwalks. SpaceX has begun inviting people to Stargate, the control center in Boca Chica, to meet and interview with recruiters. Last month, the company also held a business fair in Brownsville so that the company could “learn about select products and services available from Rio Grande Valley vendors.” Gore attended, hoping, he said half-jokingly, to become SpaceX’s official surfing instructor.Like others who visit the SpaceX facilities regularly, Gore and Barnard, the space-eyed college student, know some of the residents, including McConnaughey, whom they consider a friend. They know what the homeowners are going through, and they feel bad for them. But Barnard sees their situation through a more cosmic lens. A common argument for space travel, especially Musk’s version of it, is that it is inevitable. Of course people will someday leave Earth and build homes on other planets, and Musk is the one who can get them there. Humankind is poised to become a spacefaring civilization—to find not only survival beyond Earth, but a happy life—and for Barnard, Boca Chica might be the cradle. “It sucks,” he said. “But the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Star Trek.”[Read: The true price of privatizing space travel]As SpaceX plants roots in Cameron County, the company seems to be growing impatient about the people—about 20—who don’t want to leave. In mid-January, David Finlay, SpaceX’s senior director of finance, came to town and stopped into the homes of residents who haven’t sold. “He sat in my living room and he apologized because they’re making us leave,” but he said SpaceX needed them out soon, Garcia Johnson told me. When she asked about eminent domain, Finlay said he could tell Texas officials that SpaceX might leave if it can’t maintain operations here, which could prompt the county to start eminent-domain proceedings. Garcia Johnson hasn’t changed her mind.SpaceX declined to discuss the specifics of its negotiations with residents in Boca Chica and the possibility of eminent domain, and emphasized its commitment to its Texas locations. “Every single SpaceX rocket and spacecraft is tested in Texas before flying to space and back again,” said Gleeson, the SpaceX spokesperson. “South Texas will play an increasingly important role in our efforts to help make humanity multi-planetary.”Like Garcia Johnson, McConnaughey never wants to give up her home in Boca Chica, but she would do it for what she feels is a fair price, enough to find a similar home with the views and the quiet she has enjoyed in the village for years. But she can’t imagine being anywhere else, especially now. She loves documenting what SpaceX is doing, even though she knows the company wants her to leave.McConnaughey recognizes that her desires might seem difficult to reconcile, but she doesn’t feel conflicted about her hobby, which she said feels like an addiction. She doesn’t do it for the love of SpaceX. (She doesn’t see the appeal of going to Mars either—“isn’t it –80 degrees there?”—though she understands why others do.) She does it for the nasaspaceflight.com community, who encouraged her to post more pictures when she first started, and for other space fans who don’t have the view that she does. Her photos, alongside pieces by Barnard and Gore, are now on display at the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, as part of an exhibit chronicling SpaceX’s transformation of Boca Chica. Last month, all three mingled alongside company reps at a black-tie gala to celebrate its opening.The week I visited Boca Chica, about a month before the small explosion in November, SpaceX workers had removed the nose cone and the fins of the Starship prototype, giving it the appearance of an uncapped lipstick. It was a warm, cloudless day, and the ground seemed to sizzle in the heat of the sun. Workers in hard hats and reflective vests arrived in pickup trucks. A security guard drove over and asked me to step away from the fence. If something were to fall from the crane, he said, we’d both be in trouble.The air-conditioned houses in the village were blissfully cool in comparison, and residents showed me around their homes and backyards, pointing out their seashell collections and where they drank their coffee each morning with views of the nearby bay. McConnaughey brought out a stack of notices about public hearings and launch activities she had received over the years, a paper trail documenting the residents’ rocky coexistence with SpaceX, culminating with a glossy booklet, prepared by JLL, telling them how much their homes are worth. “Nice little wooden shack,” McConnaughey said, referring to one of the properties used for comparison. “It looks lovely.”The next day was windy and 20 degrees cooler. Heavy rain had passed through overnight, scattering palm fronds on roadways, and the bay had swelled and risen, flooding State Highway 4 just a few miles out from the village. There was no getting out, or in, until the water subsided hours later. At a hotel in Brownsville, where SpaceX puts up employees who come to work from out of town, a few technicians from the company’s facilities in California sat in the lobby. They had driven over to Boca Chica in the morning but were told to leave as the water crept up onto the highway. One of them told me they had come up so quickly on the flooding that they almost lost control of the car.I asked them what they were going to do for the afternoon. They shrugged. “Rest,” one said. Another pointed to a brightly colored liquid in a plastic cup in front of him. “Drink.”For a few hours that day, Boca Chica Village was cut off from the rest of the world. Residents said they’d never seen the bay flood this badly before, but they didn’t seem to mind. They could pretend that the village was theirs again, even as they prepared to face the reality of giving it up. McConnaughey, Garcia Johnson, Workman, and others said they’ll stick it out for as long as they can, but they know that Boca Chica has become something else, something harder to recognize. It is a strange existence, to move through the familiar routines of their days without knowing how many are left in their shifting paradise. A security guard near the big antennae told me that some of the residents wave to him during their daily walks, and he knows some of them by name. I asked him whether he knew that SpaceX was trying to buy their homes. “I thought the county made a decision for them already,” he said.
2020-02-11 17:10:58
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
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theatlantic.com
NASA Will Only Tolerate So Much Danger
A lot went right during a recent attempt to reach the International Space Station. A lot went wrong too.The rocket launched just before sunrise on a cool, late December day, cutting a streak of gold across the sky in Florida’s Cape Canaveral. The capsule it carried, which was designed and built for NASA by Boeing, was smoothly delivered past the edge of space. If the test had gone off without a hitch, the next time this spacecraft flew, it would have had astronauts inside. The capsule was supposed to stay in space for a week and dock to the ISS. But two days later, the capsule was back on Earth with its parachutes strewed across the New Mexico desert. It was healthy and in one piece, but its cargo was undelivered, and its mission cut short.Now NASA says the mission could have gone even worse.An investigation of the bungled mission has revealed more problems than officials and engineers alike expected to find. The flaws stem not from hardware, but from the flight software coded by Boeing engineers. The capsule, known as Starliner, turned out to be more dangerous than anyone realized.“We don’t know how many software errors we have,” Doug Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told reporters on Friday. “We don’t know if we have just two or we have many hundreds.”[Read: A dramatic error in American spaceflight]The launch was an important test in NASA’s plan to launch its own astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttles stopped flying in 2011. While two American companies, Boeing and SpaceX, are developing new spacecraft, NASA astronauts have been hitching some very expensive rides alongside cosmonauts on Russia’s Soyuz system. Before these two companies can fly people, though, they must prove their chops during an uncrewed journey to the ISS. SpaceX flew a similar—and successful—mission last spring. (It suffered a significant setback a month later when its capsule exploded during testing on the ground, but it has since rebounded and a new one could lift off from Cape Canaveral—with astronauts—later this year.)Timing is everything, especially in spaceflight, and that’s where Boeing’s Starliner first had trouble. Thanks to a software glitch, Starliner incorrectly set its internal clock hours before it launched, which meant that after it separated from the rocket and reached space, the capsule missed the moment it needed to fire some thrusters and push itself into the right orbit. In a cruel twist, mission control lost contact with Starliner just then because, it seems, of interference from radio noise on Earth, possibly from cellphone towers. By the time engineers could command Starliner again, the capsule, disoriented and idling, had used up too much fuel to finish its climb toward the ISS.With no choice but to return Starliner home, Boeing engineers started combing through the software and found another issue. Before Starliner begins its final descent to Earth, it must shed a service module that helped nudge it toward the atmosphere. But the way the software sequence was set up, the thrusters on this module wouldn’t have fired correctly. A rocky separation could have destabilized Starliner, causing it to tumble. The two spacecraft could’ve even bumped into each other, in which case the impact could have damaged the heat shield. Starliner needs that shield to survive the fiery drop of reentry, with astronauts on board or not.“It’s hard to say where the service module would have bumped, but nothing good can come from those two spacecraft bumping,” Jim Chilton, the senior vice president of Boeing’s space and launch division, told me.Boeing engineers rewrote the software and sent the new version to Starliner barely three hours before the capsule touched down in New Mexico. If they hadn’t intervened, NASA says, Starliner could have been lost.It is impossible to say what would have happened during this mission if people had been on board. Boeing officials have said that astronauts faced with a similar clock problem could have taken control of Starliner and guided it to the proper orbit. It’s less clear what they could have done to deal with the potential threat of a crash.NASA has begun to investigate what’s going on inside Starliner’s team, and so far, the findings aren’t good. The space agency says it has uncovered failures at nearly every phase of Starliner’s development, from design and coding to testing and verification. Software defects in code as complex as this aren’t unexpected, NASA says, but there were “numerous instances” before flight when Boeing should have caught them. Chilton said the software patch for the reentry problem, for instance, required an easy fix. A little extra prelaunch attention could have avoided the issue altogether.[Read: The next big milestone in American spaceflight]It is no doubt preferable to reckon with potentially dangerous errors after a test than after a tragedy. But the extent of the problems is confounding, and NASA seems well aware of it now. “Our NASA oversight was insufficient,” said Loverro. “That’s obvious, and we recognize that.”NASA has always relied on contractors to provide hardware for its programs, from Apollo to the space shuttles, but the agency has never depended on them quite like this before. Boeing and SpaceX are in charge of designing nearly every bit of the new craft, from propulsion systems to the aesthetic look of the seats. Astronauts assigned to the SpaceX capsule don’t even train at the famous Johnson Space Center in Houston, working instead at SpaceX’s headquarters in California.NASA is in charge of setting safety requirements and ultimately will decide whether and when the systems are astronaut ready. The arrangement worries George Abbey, the former director of Johnson Space Center, who joined NASA as an engineer in 1964 and went on to select and train astronauts during the shuttle program. “[Astronauts] were going to fly because they had the confidence in NASA leadership—that they would take care of all of the issues and problems. So when leadership told them they were ready to fly, they had that confidence,” Abbey told me. “With the lack of that oversight, I’m not sure that NASA can really assure them that they’re ready to fly.”NASA officials say that it’s too early to state whether the agency will require one more uncrewed launch from Boeing before astronauts are allowed to fly in the company’s new capsule. NASA will now conduct a new review of Boeing’s workplace culture, based on interviews with personnel ranging from senior managers to technicians. This decision, Loverro said, was influenced in part by news reports about “other parts of Boeing”—a not-so-subtle allusion to Boeing’s high-profile software problems with the 737 Max plane that led to two crashes and the deaths of 346 people. Engineers at Boeing, it eventually came out, knew about problems with the plane’s safety months before the first accident. It was hard not to think about this when Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, told reporters, rather pointedly, that he has advised his senior NASA leaders in this program to “never, ever, ever be afraid of the truth.”
2020-02-10 21:28:33
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
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theatlantic.com
The Night Sky Will Never Be the Same
Last year, Krzysztof Stanek got a letter from one of his neighbors. The neighbor wanted to build a shed two feet taller than local regulations allowed, and the city required him to notify nearby residents. Neighbors, the notice said, could object to the construction. No one did, and the shed went up.Stanek, an astronomer at Ohio State University, told me this story not because he thinks other people will care about the specific construction codes of Columbus, Ohio, but rather because it reminds him of the network of satellites SpaceX is building in the space around Earth.“Somebody puts up a shed that might obstruct my view by a foot, I can protest,” Stanek said. “But somebody can launch thousands of satellites in the sky and there’s nothing I can do? As a citizen of Earth, I was like, Wait a minute.”Since last spring, SpaceX has launched into orbit dozens of small satellites—the beginnings of Starlink, a floating scaffold that the company’s founder, Elon Musk, hopes will someday provide high-speed internet to every part of the world.SpaceX sent a letter too, in a way. After filing for permission to build its constellation in space, federal regulators held the required comment period, open to the public, before the first satellites could launch.These satellites have turned out to be far more reflective than anyone, even SpaceX engineers, expected. Before Starlink, there were about 200 objects in orbit around Earth that could be seen with the unaided eye. In less than a year, SpaceX has added another 240. “These are brighter than probably 99 percent of existing objects in Earth orbit right now,” says Pat Seitzer, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan who studies orbital debris.[Read: The satellites were never supposed to launch]For months, astronomers have shared images online of their telescopes’ fields of view with diagonal white streaks cutting across the darkness, the distinct appearance of Starlink satellites. More satellites are now on the way, both from SpaceX and other companies. If these satellites end up numbering in the tens of thousands, ignoring them would be difficult, whether you’re an astronomer or not.In some ways, these satellites pose a familiar problem, a matter of managing the competing interests that scientists, commercial companies, and the public might have in a limited natural resource. But the use of outer space—particularly the part in close vicinity to our planet—has never been tested quite like this before. For most of history, scientists, particularly those who observe the cosmos on visible wavelengths, have had relatively little competition for access to the sky. Passing satellites were considered nuisances and sometimes wrecked data, but they were rare. Some astronomers are now calling for legal action, but even those who wouldn’t push that far describe Starlink’s satellites as a wake-up call: What happens when new and powerful neighbors have a distinct—and potentially disruptive—plan for a place you value?For Harvey Liszt, the case of the Starlink satellites feels like déjà vu.Liszt specializes in radio astronomy, a field that has experienced more than its share of satellite-related headaches. The first GPS satellites, launched in the late 1970s, spewed signals across the radio spectrum, including the bands that astronomers like Liszt use to scan the universe, and interfered with their observations. “Without very strict regulation, it’s all too easy for users of the radio spectrum to spill over into each other’s spectrum,” Liszt says.So astronomers started pushing regulators to bring GPS technology in line. The United States has controlled use of the radio spectrum since the early 20th century, when it became clear that too much noise could garble emergency messages from ships in distress and other long-distance cries for help. The International Telecommunication Union, which coordinates global use of the radio spectrum, had been established decades earlier, in 1865. By the time radio astronomers had to worry about GPS satellites, the idea that satellite operators had to play by oversight rules was well understood.Before Starlink launched, SpaceX coordinated with the National Science Foundation and its radio-astronomy observatories to make sure there wouldn’t be any overlap. Unfortunately for optical astronomers, there is no such framework when it comes to the brightness of satellites—no international body in Geneva, let alone a dedicated agency in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission’s regulatory realm spans communication networks across multiple industries, which means its oversight includes, oddly enough, both satellites and offensive Super Bowl commercials. But while American satellites need the agency’s permission to launch, the FCC does not regulate the appearance of those satellites once they’re in orbit.[Read: The dark side of light]From the ground, Starlink satellites appear as points of light moving from west to east, like a string of tiny pearls across the dark sky. (Some people have even mistaken them for UFOs.) The satellites are at their brightest after launch, before they spread out and rise in altitude, and are visible even in the middle of cities. They appear dimmer after a few months, when they reach their final orbit, about 342 miles (550 kilometers) up, but even then they can still be seen in darker areas, away from the glare of light pollution.In the months since they first launched, the Starlink satellites have been essentially photobombing ground-based telescopes. Their reflectiveness can saturate detectors, overwhelming them, which can ruin frames and leave ghost imprints on others. Vivienne Baldassare’s work depends on comparing images taken night after night and looking for nearly imperceptible variations in light; the slightest shifts could reveal the existence of a black hole at the center of a glittering, distant galaxy. Baldassare, an astronomer at Yale, can’t see behind the streak of a satellite. “You can’t just subtract that off,” she says. Some objects, such as comets, are better viewed during dawn and dusk, when there’s just enough sunlight to illuminate them. But because they orbit close to Earth, the Starlink satellites can be seen during these hours, too; imagine missing a comet as it passes uncomfortably close to Earth because of too many satellites.SpaceX is “actively working with leading astronomy groups from around the world to make sure their work isn’t affected,” says the company’s spokesperson, James Gleeson. To that end, one satellite in a batch of 60 launched in early January with experimental coating that might make it less reflective. Engineers won’t know how well it worked until the satellite reaches its final orbit.As it waits for those data, SpaceX has continued to launch dozens of the original satellites. The company wants to deploy more than 1,500 satellites in 2020 alone, which means launches could come every few weeks. On top of those, the company OneWeb is scheduled to launch a batch of its own internet satellites this week; the proposed constellation of about 650 will fly at higher altitudes, which might have the paradoxical effect of being too dim to see from the ground but bright enough for telescopes to spot well into the night. And Jeff Bezos’s Amazon has asked the FCC for permission to someday launch a network of 3,200 internet satellites. In a few years’ time, three companies alone might transform the space around Earth, with SpaceX leading the pack.Some astronomers say that SpaceX should stop launching Starlink satellites until engineers find a fix for their brightness, while others, including Seitzer—who is working with SpaceX engineers—say the optical-astronomy community could probably live with about 1,500 of them. Well beyond that, dodging bright satellites and capturing good, unblemished data would become harder.“We can’t wait for the regulations, for new rules to be drafted, for the comment periods,” Seitzer says. “We have to work with the companies right now to try to convince them of the value of making their satellites as faint as possible.”[Read: What if we gave up on the stars?]The FCC has approved the launch of 12,000 Starlink satellites so far, and SpaceX wants to launch 30,000 more. (The agency did not respond to questions about whether it should be responsible for controlling the brightness of satellites.) By the end of this year, the company’s operational satellites in orbit could outnumber all other satellites combined. That would be a tremendous, wholesale change to the night sky; one company in one country would have made an immense impact on a borderless piece of nature that everyone on Earth can access. But when SpaceX filled out its application to the FCC, it marked “No” on a question asking whether the project would have “a significant environmental impact”—which meant there was no review of the satellites’ potential effects. Perhaps the surprisingly bright appearance of the Starlink satellites in the night sky, which astronomers could argue counts as an environmental impact, could have been known before launch.It might seem easy to wave away astronomers’ concerns as the hand-wringing of a small group. A couple hundred shiny satellites have little to no bearing on the daily lives of most people, who already can’t see the night sky as it truly is, because of artificial-light pollution. Aside from coordinating with commercial companies directly, it’s unclear what astronomers can do either. They doubt that average citizens are going to call their congressperson about Starlink satellites. They could sue the FCC and perhaps force the agency to consider environmental reviews, as the American Bird Conservancy did when it became apparent that the lights on communication towers could disorient migratory birds. As Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, said herself last year, when the agency approved the Starlink constellation: “This rush to develop new space opportunities requires new rules. Despite the revolutionary activity in our atmosphere, the regulatory frameworks we rely on to shape these efforts are dated.”Stanek’s point, illustrated by his neighbor’s shed, is that mega-constellations alter the aesthetics and value of the night sky in an unavoidable way. “We can’t opt out,” he said. “If I get sick and tired of living in Columbus, Ohio, I could move out to a remote cabin and disconnect from the internet. But here, everybody on the entire Earth that ever wants to look at the sky has to look at the Starlink satellites.” Obviously not everyone can pick up and relocate to the woods to experience the unobscured beauty of the sky. But there still are, for now, places where you’d expect not to see artificial stars passing overhead.
2020-02-06 14:00:00
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
After 2,000 Years, These Seeds Have Finally Sprouted
Updated on Feb. 7, 2020, at 7:57 a.m.Their names are Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah, and their ages are—well, actually, this one’s a bit complicated.Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah are date-palm trees, and although they were all planted in recent years, the seeds from which they germinated all came from ancient archaeological sites. These seeds, according to radiocarbon dating, were about 2,000 years old. They had waited two millennia to sprout.The seeds of Judean date palms turn out to have remarkable longevity. A team led by Sarah Sallon, which planted these six trees, first tried in 2005 to germinate a 2,000-year-old seed from the ancient fortress of Masada. To the surprise and delight of Sallon and her colleagues, it sprouted, and they named that first date-palm tree Methuselah, who in the Bible lived to the age of 969.“I was so not expecting it,” says Sallon, a doctor at Hadassah Medical Center who got interested in date palms as medicinal plants. At the time, the team didn’t even think to take basic measurements, such as seed weight or size, for comparison with modern date seeds. So after the success of Methuselah, they decided to try again, but more systematically. After all, was Methuselah a fluke, or were lots of date seeds viable after 2,000 years?[Read: Trees have their own songs]An archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem allowed Sallon to sift through dusty boxes of plant material recovered from some of Israel’s most famous archaeological sites. She found plenty of seeds for her purpose. “They were in all various stages of disintegration,” Sallon says. “But some were in beautiful condition.” She picked 32 of the best-preserved seeds, and her collaborator Elaine Solowey planted them at a kibbutz in southern Israel. Solowey soaked the seeds in water and applied commercial plant hormones and fertilizer, but the protocol for planting them was essentially no different than for modern seeds.Five of the six seeds that ultimately sprouted came from either Masada, the site of a famous siege in A.D. 74* that is said to have ended with the mass suicide of Masada’s defenders, or the Qumran Caves, best known as the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (A sixth came from caves at Wadi Makukh.) At 2,000 years old, the seeds are in fact contemporaries of these ancient events. Around the time Romans were laying siege to Masada and the Dead Sea Scrolls were being written, these seeds were being formed.“It’s quite remarkable this team of researchers managed to germinate seeds of that age,” says Oscar Alejandro Pérez-Escobar, who studies ancient dates at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The fact that the team has done it not just once but now seven times suggests that ancient seeds could be used to resurrect genes that disappeared after thousands of years of breeding. “These ancient seeds might represent lost genetic diversity we don’t see any more,” Pérez-Escobar says. As date-palm growers adapt to climate change and battle pests and diseases, they might want to tap into the pool of ancient genes hidden in archaeological archives.Why date-palm seeds can remain viable for so long, no one is quite sure. The seeds are physically tough and, because they are adapted to the desert, especially tolerant of drying out. But Sallon also points to the environment where they were found, near the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth’s land. That means it has an especially thick layer of atmosphere to protect from cosmic radiation that could damage the seeds.To understand how Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah are related to more modern date palms, the team also analyzed genetic markers from the seedlings. The seedlings were genetically quite different from one another. Methuselah and Adam were most closely related to eastern varieties now found in the Arabian Gulf; Hannah and Judith to modern Iraqi varieties; and Uriel, Boaz, and Jonah to modern Moroccan varieties. The ancient seeds were also bigger and heavier than modern varieties.[Read: What happens to meat when you freeze it for 35,000 years] Sallon helped name the seedlings. After Methuselah, she decided to continue with the biblical theme. Adam sprouted in the fall, around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which celebrates the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve. She originally named the tree Eve, but switched to Adam after genetic markers revealed that it was a male tree. Judith came up a few months later, around Hanukkah, and was originally named Judah for the hero of the Hanukkah story, Judah Maccabee. Two more seedlings germinated around the spring harvest festival of Shavuot, when the Book of Ruth is traditionally read. So Sallon named those trees after Ruth and Boaz, Ruth’s second husband—until genetic analysis revealed that Ruth was also male. So Sallon changed the name to Uriel, after, this time, her own son.Methuselah is now mature enough to produce pollen, and he’s actually become a father. Solowey used him to pollinate a modern female, and they made dates. The two female date palms from ancient seeds, Judith and Hannah, have not yet reached sexual maturity, so no ancient date fruits have been resurrected yet.And even when they do, Sallon explains, the fruits they bear are unlikely to be identical to the ones that people grew and ate 2,000 years ago. Once growers found a date palm with all the qualities they liked, they likely kept “cloning” that single palm by taking cuttings. Farmers do the same thing today with apple and pear varieties. Sexual reproduction—crossing a male and female tree—scrambles genetic lineages and introduces uncertainties. It’s the same reason an apple seed from a Pink Lady at the grocery store is unlikely to yield perfect Pink Ladies when planted in your backyard. Ancient DNA can be resurrected, but re-creating the exact taste of an ancient fruit would be much harder.*This article originally misstated the date of the siege of Masada.
2020-02-05 21:01:34
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The New Coronavirus Is a Truly Modern Epidemic
On Thursday, Nahid Bhadelia left rural Uganda, where she had been helping to set up a center for studying viruses such as Ebola. Before she left, she was peppered with concerned questions about when 2019-nCoV—the new coronavirus that has rapidly spread through China—would appear there. The virus had already reached 23 other countries, and when Bhadelia, an infectious disease physician at Boston University School of Medicine, arrived in Amsterdam on Friday morning for a layover, she noticed that a quarter of the people in Schiphol Airport seemed to be wearing face masks. When she landed in Paris for a second stop, she paused to deal with the barrage of tweets and emails that she had been getting about the new virus. “I’m not as worried by the disease as from people’s reactions to it,” she told me over Skype. “People are freaking out.”The virus emerged in the city of Wuhan in December, and has infected more than 17,200 people. The large majority of cases have been in mainland China, but more than 140 have been detected elsewhere. At least 361 people have died in China, and one in the Philippines. In response, the World Health Organization recently declared a “public-health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC)—a designation that it has used on five previous occasions, for epidemics of H1N1 swine flu, polio, Ebola, Zika, and Ebola again. The invocation of a PHEIC is a sign that the new coronavirus should be taken seriously—and as the sixth such invocation in a little more than a decade, it is a reminder that we live in an age of epidemics.Each new crisis follows a familiar playbook, as scientists, epidemiologists, health-care workers, and politicians race to characterize and contain the new threat. Each epidemic is also different, and each is a mirror that reflects the society it affects. In the new coronavirus, we see a world that is more connected than ever by international travel, but that has also succumbed to growing isolationism and xenophobia. We see a time when scientific research and the demand for news, the spread of misinformation and the spread of a virus, all happen at a relentless, blistering pace. The new crisis is very much the kind of epidemic we should expect, given the state of the world in 2020. “It’s almost as if the content is the same but the amplitude is different,” Bhadelia said. “There’s just a greater frenzy, and is that a function of the disease, or a function of the changed world? It’s unclear.”Certainly, the new epidemic has grown at a pace unprecedented in recent history. The official case count has more than tripled within the past week, from about 4,500 on Monday to more than 17,200 now. In Wuhan, the number of ill people is straining the health care system, testing kits are in short supply, and hospitals are so full that some patients are being sent home to quarantine themselves, Amy Qin of The New York Times reports. The virus seems to have rapidly eclipsed SARS, which infected only about 8,100 people throughout eight months in 2002 and 2003.[Read: The deceptively simple number sparking coronavirus fears]But several experts note that this comparison is misleading. SARS hit a world that was unaware of how far and fast a new virus could spread, and that was unprepared for such a threat. Many cases were likely never recorded because tests were slow to arrive and affected people weren’t sick enough to seek treatment. By stark contrast, the panic about the new coronavirus might lead to an uptick in known cases “because people are more conscious of it and are reporting their illness and seeking out testing,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.Diagnostic tests are already available for 2019-nCoV, even though the virus still lacks a formal name. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already sent testing kits to state labs. In China, thousands of people are being tested every day, and that pace will only rise as two new hospitals finish construction. More testing means that, in addition to cases of very recent infections, doctors will start identifying people who had caught the virus earlier but hadn’t yet been diagnosed—a trend that inevitably leads to ballooning numbers. “It’s not that we’re getting this many new cases every single day,” says Maia Majumder, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. The number of cases is rising because the medical system is not only playing catch-up to a virus, but also, reassuringly, closing the gap between infection and diagnosis.But the number of new infections is rising. “We’re getting numbers faster, but that’s partly because there are more numbers,” says Tom Inglesby, a health-security expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s not just an observation bias. It’s a real disease on the move.” And that movement is easier than ever: The number of people traveling by plane every year has more than doubled since SARS first emerged, in 2003.The rate at which scientists can analyze a new threat has also increased dramatically. Zika spread through the Americas for 16 months before anyone even knew it was there. Ebola spread through West Africa for several months before any researcher managed to sequence its genes. But this time, in a matter of weeks, researchers recognized a new respiratory virus in the middle of flu season, identified it as a coronavirus, isolated it, sequenced its genome dozens of times over, and worked out how it sticks to human cells. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Majumder says. Researchers (and the WHO) have particularly praised Chinese scientists for their speed and transparency in releasing viral genomes and clinical data. China was heavily criticized for withholding and downplaying information during the SARS outbreak. This time around, “it’s a completely different ball game,” says Rebecca Katz, a health-security expert at Georgetown University. “There’s a tremendous amount of information being shared.”[Read: A virus with a deadly boring name]Despite that information, many unknowns remain. How transmissible is the virus? Once infected, how much time passes before people show symptoms, and how likely are they to die? Which people are most at risk? It seems that, on average, infected people spread the virus to two or three others. Thus far, only a minority of those who’ve been infected have become severely ill, and most of those people were either elderly or had prior medical complications. But there are still many uncertainties—and that is entirely normal. “These are the same questions you’d ask in every single outbreak ever—and given that this is a novel virus, we’re getting a lot of answers very quickly,” Katz says.The unusual speed of discovery partly stems from better avenues for scientific communication. In the past decade, scientists have developed open portals for sharing and analyzing viral genomes, used preprint servers to quickly post new papers, and created rich networks on Twitter and other social media. Researchers can share data and refine ideas faster than ever—but they’re doing so in full view of a concerned citizenry. “You want the free flow of scientific information, but that information is being shared with the public at the same speed, while the scientific community is still digesting it,” Bhadelia told me.Preliminary data that might once have run the gantlet of peer review before being published can now be downloaded by anyone, sparking misinterpretations and conspiracy theories. Epidemiological arcana, such as the R0 number, are suddenly the subject of widespread discussion. Uncertainties that academics are used to dealing with, about fatality rates or transmissibility, are stoking fear. “It’s not that we should know this by now and we don’t,” Majumder says. “What’s uncommon is not so much these epidemiological factors but the amount of public interest in them.”Some of these dynamics were clear during the West African Ebola outbreak, in which misinformation and paranoia circulated faster than the actual virus (in part because of the man who now sits in the White House). If anything, the threat of misinformation is now worse, as false reports readily cascade through channels that amplify extreme messages over accurate ones. At a time when researchers are faster than ever at filling the information gaps that escort a new disease, those gaps can also fill just as quickly with bunk.Hoaxes and half-truths are huge problems during epidemics. The worried well can overwhelm health-care facilities, and make it harder for medical providers to find and treat actual cases. Confused citizens might forgo sensible measures such as hand washing in favor of inefficient ones like panicked mask buying. And misinformation tends to intensify the xenophobia that emerges during epidemics. As diseases spread, “individuals find people to blame based on their prejudices, or make themselves feel less at risk by finding points of discrimination between themselves and others,” says Alexandra Phelan, who studies legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases at Georgetown University. Gay men suffered stigma and discrimination when HIV first emerged. Ebola became a stand-in for “any combination of ‘African-ness,’ ‘blackness,’ ‘foreign-ness,’ and ‘infestation’” during the West African outbreak, my colleague Hannah Giorgis once wrote. And now, as was the case with SARS in 2003, anti-Asian racism is rampant.[Read: How to misinform yourself about the coronavirus]In recent years, the world has seen a rise in anti-immigration rhetoric and isolationist politics, all of which are evident in the reactions to the 2019-nCoV outbreak. The State Department issued its highest-level travel advisory, warning Americans not to travel to China. Citizens who have recently returned from Hubei province are being quarantined. Noncitizens who have recently been to China will be denied entry. Such measures might seem intuitively sensible, but border screenings and travel bans have historically proved ineffective and inefficient at controlling diseases. If anything, they can make matters worse. “People will find a way to get where they want to go, but you lose the opportunity to provide them with information, and you drive them away from public health services,” Phelan says. “Measures that try to carve a country off from the rest of the world are deeply rooted in the protectionist approaches that have proliferated in politics. I think they make the world less safe.”Bans can also break the fragile bonds of international trust that are necessary for controlling diseases, which is why the WHO advised against them when it declared a PHEIC. If countries know that they’ll be cut off during an epidemic, with all the economic repercussions that entails, they may be less likely to report future outbreaks, leading to costly delays. “The U.S. is a country with considerable normative weight internationally,” Phelan says. “And if a country knows that the U.S. is going to react like this, are they really going to come forward?” If China pays the price for transparency with 2019-nCoV, what lesson will it learn for the next epidemic?And there will be a next epidemic. A new disease was always going to rear its head to test the world’s mettle, and more almost certainly will in the future. As I argued in 2018, the world isn’t ready. There has assuredly been progress—vaccines can be produced faster, global cooperation is tighter, basic research is nimbler—but supply chains are stretched, misinformation is rife, and investments in preparedness always fall into neglect once panic subsides. “Every year, things get more and more connected,” Inglesby says. “Epidemics like this show that all of it can be relatively quickly put at risk.”
2020-02-03 15:26:43
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
A Virus With a Deadly Boring Name
Since it first appeared in Wuhan, China, late last year, a newly discovered coronavirus has sickened more than 9,800 people, killed at least 213, caused a run on face masks, and shut down travel throughout China. All of this has happened, and the virus still doesn’t have an official name.The virus’s temporary designation—2019-nCoV—is neither catchy nor pithy. Headlines routinely refer to this virus as the “Wuhan coronavirus” or even just the “Chinese virus.” But those names tie the virus to particular places, going against current best practices. Often, the virus is called, simply, “coronavirus,” a broad term that includes many viruses other than this one. In the middle of an outbreak, picking a name might not seem like the most pressing problem, but whatever name is chosen—or sticks to the virus unofficially—can ultimately have lingering effects.In the 20th century, virus hunters frequently named their discoveries according to geography: Spanish flu; Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever; Lyme, for the town in Connecticut; Ebola, for a nearby river. These names forever bound these locales to diseases that may or may not have actually originated there. In 2009, “swine flu” led Egypt to slaughter all of its pigs, even though that virus was not spread through swine. The National Pork Board in the U.S. hated the name too.[Read: The deceptively simple number sparking coronavirus fears]No one likes being associated with a notorious virus, so naming one can be a rather fraught political process.For the new virus, the World Health Organization currently uses the assiduously neutral placeholder name of 2019-nCoV—2019 for the year the virus first appeared and nCov for “novel coronavirus.” (Corona refers to the crown-shaped spikes found in coronaviruses, a group that includes MERS and SARS but normally only infects animals.) But the date in 2019-nCoV could easily get confusing as the outbreak continues in 2020, and especially if it comes back in future years. In the past, experts in an International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) study group have worked with the WHO and local authorities to officially name new viruses.This time, for 2019-nCoV, they will be working under the WHO’s best practices—created in 2015 to address the fraught process of naming. The best practices discourage geographic names, people, animal species, cultural references, and “terms that incite undue fear,” such as unknown, death, fatal, and epidemic. They encourage names that describe symptoms (such as respiratory, spongiform, deficiency), groups affected (juvenile, pediatric, maternal), time course (acute, transient), severity, seasonality (winter, summer), and even arbitrary identifiers (Alpha, beta, a, b, I, II, III, 1, 2, 3).The extremely descriptive names that result from this process can be a mouthful, so the guideline suggests evaluating acronyms for offensiveness too. SARS, for example, is an acronym for “severe acute respiratory syndrome,” which checks all the boxes for descriptive terms. But SARS was also uncomfortably close to SAR, or Hong Kong’s designation as a special administrative region in China. “Hong Kong suffered mightily from SARS and did not appreciate the fact that the virus, which originated in China, appeared to hint at a Hong Kong origin,” Helen Branswell writes in STAT.[Read: How to misinform yourself about the coronavirus]The last outbreak in which scientists had to name a new coronavirus was MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome. It was first identified in a sample from Saudi Arabia in 2012, and the country’s initials were in an early name. The Saudi government wasn’t too happy about that. It took another five months for the ICTV study group, in consultation with the WHO and the Saudi government, to agree on MERS. (Though the WHO now cites MERS as an example of what not to use, because of the geographic region still in the name.)Raoul de Groot, who chaired the study group when it named MERS, says he expects the process to move faster this time, given how quickly the 2019-nCoV outbreak has spread and made headlines. For de Groot, a virologist at Utrecht University who has been studied coronaviruses for 40 years, this has been surreal to watch. When he started studying them, he says, “coronaviruses were actually a backwater.” The viruses were known to infect animals—but it’s only with SARS, MERS, and now the yet-to-be-officially named 2019-nCoV that coronaviruses have been very relevant to humans. “If I would have had a choice, I would rather still be working in an obscure field,” he says. A once-obscure scientific term has now become a household word, even as the official name is still pending.
2020-01-31 22:30:23
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Fall in Love With the Sun Again
It is not advised, under any circumstances, to look directly at the sun. Our eyes are no match for its blaze, and the light can damage them within seconds, sometimes permanently. Remember all those news stories back in 2017, warning people to wear special, protective glasses during the solar eclipse so that they didn’t burn off their retinas? Those were good warnings.The trick is to get a very expensive telescope to do it for you.Astronomers this week released what they say is the most detailed view of the sun ever captured. There it is, squirming at the top of this article. The amber cells are the scorching plasma that covers the surface of the sun like a honeycomb. Hot gas rises from the brightest centers of the blobs, cools off, and then sinks back down into the dark crevices around them. Each molten cell is about the size of Texas.[Read: It’s easier to leave the solar system than to reach the sun]The image comes from an observatory perched atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, named for the longtime Hawaii senator who died in 2013, just started capturing data last month.If this is what the first batch looks like, the rest seem guaranteed to bend our perception of the sun as a blinding spot in the sky. This doesn’t look like the sun at all. The zoomed-in view feels like a cosmic Rorschach test. Do you see nuggets of gold or popcorn kernels? Do you feel a sudden, confusing desire to eat it? Either way, I am mesmerized.The GIF is more than a pretty picture. Scientists are poised to learn more about the sun in the next few years than ever before. NASA launched a probe to study the sun in 2018, and the mission is already returning exciting results. Another solar probe, this one from the European Space Agency, is launching next week. The Inouye facility is the world’s largest solar telescope and is scheduled to begin operations in earnest in July. The observatory is equipped with a host of high-tech hardware, including a cooling system that helps manage the enormous amount of heat the telescope has to handle. (Even for a machine, staring at the sun has its dangers.)The exact details are a tangle of technical jargon, but this sentiment, from David Boboltz, the National Science Foundation program director who oversees operations, conveys nicely just how sophisticated this facility is: “The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our sun during the first five years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sun in 1612.”The Inouye telescope and the new spacecraft are designed to investigate some fundamental questions about the sun. Astronomers have managed to reach across the universe and catch the light of the most distant stars, but the nearest one still remains a mystery in many ways.[Read: The mystery at the center of the solar system]No one knows, for example, how solar wind is produced, and yet we—and all the other planets, as far out as Pluto—exist within this invisible breeze. Nor does anyone know why the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is hotter than the roiling surface, or how magnetic forces in this scorching layer produce flares. Such eruptions could be powerful enough to knock out power grids on Earth and satellites in orbit.Data from the Inouye telescope, astronomers say, will make it possible to predict potentially dangerous solar events two days in advance—much earlier than the current standard, which is less than an hour—and give operators around the world the chance to secure important infrastructure. In 2017, as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, made landfall in the Caribbean, a solar flare pointed right at Earth caused a radio blackout in sunlit parts of the world. For eight hours, emergency personnel couldn’t use high-frequency radio to communicate.The new view of the sun reminds me of another recent baffling image from out of space: the first photo of a black hole. It is not a perfect comparison; getting a closeup look at the black hole in the center of another galaxy was much harder to do, requiring a global, years-long effort and more powerful technology. But the effect, to the untrained eye, is similar: the rush of witnessing something unfathomably distant, a place whose meaning can be understood but which is impossible to visit, appear on the screen inches before our eyes.
2020-01-30 19:53:43
2021-05-08T09:20:21.000000
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