Science in the News

What Nuclear War Will Do to Our Planet

Given the tense political climate, the hot issue on everyone’s mind is the possibility of nuclear war. Viral posts on Tumblr and Facebook lay out step-by-step instructions on what to do in case of a nuclear attack, and near constant coverage of the Trump-Korea tensions plays on every news station. But what really would happen if a nuclear bomb was dropped?

 

In 2014, a team of environmental scientists created a computer model of exactly what would happen to the Earth in the event of small-scale regional nuclear warfare. Their set up: 100 nuclear warheads dropped over India. This is a relatively small nuclear stockpile — The US currently has 4480 available nuclear weapons — but their results are still scarily significant.

 
Day 2 — Smoke from burning cities enters stratosphere. Credits: Steven Starr, University of Michigan

First off, an attack would send 5 megatons of black carbon into the atmosphere. For reference, the entire population of the earth weighed together weighs around 316 megatons. So that is a huge, incomprehensible amount of carbon, and that carbon is the cause of most of our problems.

 
Day 8 — Global smoke layer forms. Credits: Steven Starr, University of Michigan

The carbon blocks out much of the sun, and the temperature of earth drops about 1.1 Kelvin in the first year. Falling temperatures mean that we receive much less rainfall, and our crops start to fail. An estimate by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War says that 2 billion people will starve.

 
Day 64— 10% of sunlight blocked from reaching the surface of Earth. Credits: Steven Starr, University of Michigan

In addition, atmospheric chemical reactions slowly degrade our ozone layer until its roughly 25% thinner than it was pre-warfare. This decreased UV protection causes a spike in skin cancer and reduced plant growth.

Of course, everyone in close radius of the blast is instantly killed and hundreds of thousands of others suffer from radiation poisoning. The land becomes inhabitable for over 50 years.

As stated before, these are the results of a small-scale nuclear attack. The nuclear arsenal held by the US is roughly 400 times larger, and the results of any kind of warfare could quite possibly be fatal to the majority of the human race.

The good news? Despite what news stations tell you, most experts believe the tensions between the US and North Korea will never actually lead to nuclear war. So while a conflict would be catastrophic, it will almost certainly never come to that. If you’re still worried, just know that organizations like the ones behind these studies are working to ensure nuclear war never occurs.

Our Sixth Mass Extinction

A mass extinction is the eradication of a large number of species within a short period of geological time due to catastrophic factors occur too rapidly for most species to adapt. Today, many scientists think the evidence indicates a sixth mass extinction is under way. The Holocene extinction, also known as the Sixth Extinction or Anthropocene extinction, is ongoing and humans are to blame.

Pollution

Pollution is one of the primary ways humans have caused severe modifications of wildlife habitat. We have sabotaged the air, water, soil and given little consideration to the ecological consequences of our actions. As a result, wildlife populations are confronted with a bewildering array of pollutants, being suffocated, strangled and eventually killed.

 
What found inside an albatross chick on Midway Island

Climate Change

The global temperatures are warming because of greenhouse gases that humans are pumping into the atmosphere. One major consequence is that melting glaciers are raising the sea level. Flooding, increasing temperature and other climate-related consequences make species unable to exist in their original homes.

 
A pelican body found after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Hunting/ Poaching

Hunting is a way for humans to systematically wipe out species very quickly. Animals are poached for cultural medicine, trading, clothing or personal interests.

 
Pangolins are the most illegally trafficked animal in the world; over 100,000 are killed and traded every year for their meat and scales as a source of traditional medicine.

Habitat Degradation

The more humans convert land to their own purposes, the less habitat left for animals. Natural habitats are being converted for human use at an alarming rate. About half of the earth’s original forests are gone. In fact, we are losing forests at the rate of 20 football fields per minute. If the current rate of deforestation continues, it will take less than 100 years to destroy all the rainforests on Earth.

 

Dire Consequences

Recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history:

  • World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates the extinction rate is 1000–10,000 times faster than natural and each year, 200–2000 species go extinct.
  • Mother Nature Network (MNN) reports that 38% of all land animals and 81% of freshwater vertebrates went extinct between 1970 to 2012.
  • In just the past 40 years, nearly 52 percent of the planet’s wildlife species have been eliminated.
  • According to the study published in the journal Science Advances, 75 percent Earth’s species could be lost in the span of two generations.

Humans: The Next Victim

Humans will not be spectators to the phenomenon but rather victims as well. Just before his death in 2010, Professor Frank Fenner left a chilling warning for future generations, saying the end is on the horizon for humanity.

The human race faces a one in 500 chance of extinction in the next year, an expert mathematician has claimed. That is twenty times more likely than dying in a car crash.

So is it all lost? Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require us rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and minimize the amount of chemical pollutants to the environment. But time is of the essence, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

The Future of Disease Diagnosis

MIT researchers have devised a new, non-invasive technique to determine cell stiffness and thus reveal disease.

Diabetes – Under the Scalpel

Recent estimates by the International Diabetes Federation and World Health Organization suggest that currently there are 415 people around the world with the disease. This may climb to 650 million by 2040.

Alzheimer’s – Prevention May Be the Answer

By 2030, more than 70 million people worldwide are expected to have Alzheimer’s, at a global cost of US $2 trillion. Yet, treatment for this disease has remained as elusive as ever.

Feeding the World

With the human population growing much faster than the rate of food being grown, the food crisis has never been more evident. In fact, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that production will need to almost double in order to meet that demand — and so far, no one is entirely clear on how to do that.

Ever since the first crop was domesticated in 9300 BCE, humans have created several methods to address food problems. In fact, today’s crop practices are dominated by fertilisers, pesticides, and GMOs.

Recently, plant biologists at the University of California have begun heading a new front of “getting more bang for their agricultural buck.” Their research returned to the beginning of it all: photosynthesis. Although it’s the very foundation of all life on Earth, photosynthesis is surprisingly inefficient. Indeed, many crops only use about 1% to 2% of the light that hits a leaf. In order to address this drawback, scientists looked into the plant’s “sun-shield” mechanism called nonphotochemical quenching (NPQ).

NPQ is the plant’s natural defence against excessively bright sunlight by converting photons into harmless heat. And like someone who forgets to doff their sunglasses indoors, this botanical sun shield takes hours to turn off when a shadow passes over a leaf. In 2004, Stephen Long and colleagues from the University of Illinois in Urbana calculated that NPQ can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide turned into sugars by up to 30%. The result: sloppy photosynthesis.

After reading Long’s paper, Krishna Niyogi of the UCLA had an idea to turn off NPQ faster. The strategy was to add extra copies of three genes whose proteins should speed the response to shade. Niyogi, Long, and their postdocs took these genes from the widely studied mustard Arabidopsis thaliana and inserted them into tobacco plants, which are quick and easy to test. The modified tobacco bulked up their leaves, stems, and roots, weighing 14% to 20% more than unmodified plants after 22 days.

Although more research is needed to see if modifications result in unaccounted consequences, this research could have potentially have a global impact.

A Future without Illness: Gene Editing with CRISPR

When a baby is born & if their immune system is compromised or there is a tiny mistake in the DNA sequence along the X chromosome, the neutrophils in the baby’s blood will be incapacitated.

First Artificial Womb

Scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have successfully kept premature lambs alive for weeks using their own artificial womb that resembles a plastic bag. Not only did the lambs survive, they also grew and matured, mirroring the growth they would have gone through had they been in a natural lamb womb.

How does this work? 

The artificial bag, made of polyethylene, provides everything the lamb fetus requires. The plastic bag imitates amniotic fluid, a mixture of warm water and added salts, which is inhaled by the fetus. The blue arrows represent gallons of this mixture that are constantly pumped through the bag to ensure a fresh supply. The other essential aspect required by the lamb is the oxygen and nutrients it gets from its mother via the placenta. In the artificial womb, the special machine (marked “gas exchange machine” on the diagram) is connected to the lamb’s umbilical cord, and the lamb’s heart pumps old, used blood to the machine to be replenished before the blood flows back through the tubes to the lamb. In the study conducted by researchers, the premature lambs developed normally in the bags, reaching all the milestones-the opening of eyes and growth of a wool coat. After the lambs had matured enough and their lungs were developed, they were released to breathe air.

What does this mean for humanity?

Currently, babies born prematurely at 23 weeks of gestation, similar to the age of the lamb fetus, are placed in incubators and ventilators so they can breathe, but their lungs do not develop properly in this way. The chance of survival is close to 0% at less than 23 weeks, 15% at 23 weeks, 55% at 24 weeks, and 80% at 25 weeks. The bio bag will increase all chances of survival for premature babies, providing a new way to support those who are born too early, but not to replace the role of mothers entirely. Though this treatment is promising, human trials are still a few years away and many more problems may arise in the future.

What are the problems?

Researches say that there is significant risk of infection albeit the sterile and sealed bag. Moreover, human babies are significantly more complex than lamb fetuses; the precise combination of essential nutrients and hormones is difficult to obtain and may require several more years of research and clinical trials to achieve.

This also raises a few ethical questions that are difficult to answer. Is this natural? Are we interrupting nature’s flow? Are the babies that matured in the bag artificial? How will parents feel about seeing their newborn encased in a plastic bag for weeks?

Despite the many issues and challenges, researchers are excited for the future.

It is best that we take this medical breakthrough with a grain of salt and congratulate ourselves, while continuing to strive for more refined techniques for saving lives.

New Renewable Energy Source is… Gravity?

Keyboard buttons. Coffee grounds. Cow farts. What do these things have in common? Over the years, they’ve all been put forward as possible sources of renewable energy. While they may seem crazy, scientists’ creativity is understandable — the search for clean, renewable energy is arguably the most pressing issue in modern science. Now, some scientists say the search may be over — and unlike the previous suggestions (involving complex concepts like piezoelectricity, acid-microorganism extraction, and micro nuclear physics), this idea revolves around a concept we’ve all known since elementary school: gravity.

This idea is not new — in fact, New York legislators were considering a proposal to classify gravity as a renewable energy source way back in 2011. The idea was inspired by elevators: when heavily weighted elevators go down and lightly weighted ones go up, gravity naturally helps to complete the motion and electricity can be generated from the “gravity-powered” motor rotation.

 

Another innovative idea was the gravity-powered lamp. One model, called Gravia, uses a simple weight on a ball screw to power the lightbulb. As the weight slides down the screw over the course of 4 hours, the friction powers the lamp with the energy of a 40-watt bulb. The issue with this model is that it requires manual labor to power it — the user must physically bring the weight to the top of the lamp every 4 hours.

 

This brings us to the issue with gravity as an energy source. In both of these scenarios, the way to get excess energy from a gravitational field is to move an object from an area of high potential to low potential. The issue here is that moving the object back to the area of high potential -or putting it there in the first place- requires the exact same amount of energy as the movement generates. No net gain is possible in this scenario; no energy is generated. It is only converted from one form to another.

 

This brings us to the Linthal hydropower plant. Located in Switzerland, this plant is currently using gravity to produce the same amount of pure power as a nuclear power plant. This facility works as a huge battery, using water to store potential energy. Water is stored in reservoirs, and when energy is needed, the gates open and the power of gravity causes the water to flow through huge turbines. When energy consumption is low, water is pumped back up to the reservoir until more is needed. The power of the water through the turbines generates huge amounts of energy — over 1450 megawatts at a time. This much energy is enough to power over a million homes.

 

Clearly, this kind of energy generation can have a huge impact. So, is gravity really the energy source of the future? Only time will tell. However, it seems to be an incredibly useful source of energy on both a small and large scale. And because we certainly aren’t going to run out of gravity anytime soon, it may be the most renewable source on earth.

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