Scientists have identified the traits that may make a person more likely to claim they hear the voices of the dead.
According to new research, a predisposition to high levels of absorption in tasks, unusual auditory experiences in childhood, and a high susceptibility to auditory hallucinations all occur more strongly in self-described clairaudient mediums than the general population.
The finding could help us to better understand the upsetting auditory hallucinations that accompany mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, the researchers say.
The Spiritualist experiences of clairvoyance and clairaudience – the experience of seeing or hearing something in the absence of an external stimulus, and attributed to the spirits of the dead – is of great scientific interest, both for anthropologists studying religious and spiritual experiences, and scientists studying pathological hallucinatory experiences.
In particular, researchers would like to better understand why some people with auditory experiences report a Spiritualist experience, while others find them more distressing, and receive a mental health diagnosis.
“Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences which are positive, start early in life and which they are often then able to control,” explained psychologist Peter Moseley of Northumbria University in the UK.
“Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too.”
He and his colleague psychologist Adam Powell of Durham University in the UK recruited and surveyed 65 clairaudient mediums from the UK’s Spiritualists’ National Union, and 143 members of the general population recruited through social media, to determine what differentiated Spiritualists from the general public, who don’t (usually) report hearing the voices of the dead.
Overall, 44.6 percent of the Spiritualists reported hearing voices daily, and 79 percent said the experiences were part of their daily lives. And while most reported hearing the voices inside their head, 31.7 percent reported that the voices were external, too.
The results of the survey were striking.
Compared to the general population, the Spiritualists reported much higher belief in the paranormal, and were less likely to care what other people thought of them.
The Spiritualists on the whole had their first auditory experience young, at an average age of 21.7 years, and reported a high level of absorption. That’s a term that describes total immersion in mental tasks and activities or altered states, and how effective the individual is at tuning out the world around them.
In addition, they reported that they were more prone to hallucination-like experiences. The researchers noted that they hadn’t usually heard of Spiritualism prior to their experiences; rather, they had come across it while looking for answers.
In the general population, high levels of absorption were also strongly correlated with belief in the paranormal – but little or no susceptibility to auditory hallucinations. And in both groups, there were no differences in the levels of belief in the paranormal and susceptibility to visual hallucinations.
These results, the researchers say, suggest that experiencing the ‘voices of the dead’ is therefore unlikely to be a result of peer pressure, a positive social context, or suggestibility due to belief in the paranormal. Instead, these individuals adopt Spiritualism because it aligns with their experience and is personally meaningful to them.
“Our findings say a lot about ‘learning and yearning’. For our participants, the tenets of Spiritualism seem to make sense of both extraordinary childhood experiences as well as the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practising mediums,” Powell said.
“But all of those experiences may result more from having certain tendencies or early abilities than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough.”
Future research, they concluded, should explore a variety of cultural context to better understand the relationship between absorption, belief, and the strange, spiritual experience of ghosts whispering in one’s ear.
Even though we know the deep sea is weird, ‘carnivorous sea sponges’ still sound like something from a sci-fi movie. And yet, researchers just announced the discovery of three new such species off the coast of Australia.
“It just goes to show how much of our deep oceans are yet to be explored – these particular sponges are quite unique in that they are only found in this particular region of The Great Australian Bight – a region that was slated for deep sea oil exploration,” said one of the researchers, Queensland Museum Sessile Marine Invertebrates Collection manager Merrick Ekins.
Typically, sea sponges are multicellular filter feeders – they have holey tissues for flowing water, from which their cells extract oxygen and food. They’re pretty simple creatures, with no nervous, digestive, or circulatory system, but have existed in some form for over 500 million years.
Scanning electron microscope image of Abyssocladia oxyasters. (Ekins et al., Zootaxa, 2020)
But carnivorous sponges are a bit different. Some carnivorous sponges still use the water flow system, while others (like the three newly discovered species) have lost this ability altogether, and nab small crustaceans and other prey using filaments or hooks.
The researchers in this study found three new species of carnivorous sponges – Nullarbora heptaxia, Abyssocladia oxyasters and Lycopodina hystrix, which are also all new genera, as well as a closely related species of sponge that isn’t carnivorous, Guitarra davidconryi. All these species were found at depths of between 163 and over 3,000 metres (535 to 9,842 feet) deep.
“Here we report on an additional four new species of sponges discovered from the Great Australian Bight, South Australia. This area has recently been surveyed, using a Smith-McIntyre Grab and a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to photograph and harvest the marine biota,” the researchers write in their new paper.
“These new species are the first recorded carnivorous species from South Australia and increase the number of species recorded from around Australia to 25.”
The sponges are also prettier than you would imagine, looking a little like flowers with their spiky protrusions, but not a lot like sponges.
Close up of A. oxyaster. (Ekins et al., Zootaxa, 2020)
“Over the past two decades, our knowledge of carnivorous sponge diversity has almost doubled,” the same team explains in an earlier paper, where they described their discovery of 17 new species of carnivorous sponges.
“[This is] due in part to rapid advances in deep sea technology including ROVs and submersibles able to photograph and harvest carnivorous sponges intact, and also to the herculean efforts of a number of contemporary taxonomists redescribing many of the older species described in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Nearly every species of carnivorous sponge found in Australia was discovered during a CSIRO RV Investigator Voyage in 2017, showing just how important these deep-sea investigations are.
The fast-spreading “UK variant” of the coronavirus could become the predominant strain in the United States by March, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
About 76 cases of the new variant, known as B.1.1.7, have been detected in 10 US states so far, but its ability to spread more easily than other variants means it could take off rapidly here, according to a new computer model of the spread, detailed in a report Friday (Jan. 15) in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Even though this variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) is not thought to cause more severe illness, its projected rise is especially worrisome because more cases overall mean more hospitalizations and more deaths.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will eventually reduce COVID-19 transmission significantly, but this likely won’t happen until after B.1.1.7 becomes the dominant variant, according to the model.
In the meantime, “increased SARS-CoV-2 transmission might threaten strained health care resources, require extended and more rigorous implementation of public health strategies and increase the percentage of population immunity required for pandemic control,” the authors said.
To avoid a worst-case scenario, health officials find themselves once again stressing the need to slow the spread of the virus, with masks, distancing and adherence to quarantines, which can lessen the impact of B.1.1.7 and “allow critical time to increase vaccination coverage,” the authors wrote.
In the new model, the researchers assumed that B.1.1.7 currently has a prevalence of 0.5 percent in the US among all COVID-19 infections, and that it is 50 percent more transmissible than other variants.
The model also assumed that about 10 percent to 30 percent of the US population has immunity to COVID-19 due to previous infections, and that about 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses are administered per day beginning Jan. 1, 2021. (As of Jan. 15, about 11 million doses have been given, working out to less than 1 million doses per day, according to the CDC.)
The model projects that B.1.1.7 prevalence will grow rapidly in early 2021, and become the predominant variant in March, meaning the majority of infections will be from this variant compared with others. In the model, the rollout of vaccines didn’t change the early trajectory of the variant, but kicked in later, and eventually reduced transmission significantly.
The effect of vaccines on reducing COVID-19 transmission in the near-term was greatest when transmission was already decreasing, the authors said, which further underscores the importance of slowing the virus’s spread now.
This data shows “that universal use of and increased compliance with mitigation measures and vaccination are crucial to reduce the number of new cases and deaths substantially in the coming months,” the authors said.
Enhanced efforts to track the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and look for other variants of concern is also critical. The agency is currently working to bolster its surveillance in this area.
Evidence of a long-sought hypothetical particle could have been hiding in plain (X-ray) sight all this time.
The X-ray emission coming off a collection of neutron stars known as the Magnificent Seven is so excessive that it could be coming from axions, a long-predicted kind of particle, forged in the dense cores of these dead objects, scientists have demonstrated.
If their findings are confirmed, this discovery could help unravel some of the mysteries of the physical Universe – including the nature of the mysterious dark matter that holds it all together.
“Finding axions has been one of the major efforts in high-energy particle physics, both in theory and in experiments,” said astronomer Raymond Co of the University of Minnesota.
“We think axions could exist, but we haven’t discovered them yet. You can think of axions as ghost particles. They can be anywhere in the Universe, but they don’t interact strongly with us so we don’t have any observations of them yet.”
Axions are hypothetical ultra-low-mass particles, first theorised in the 1970s to resolve the question of why strong atomic forces follow something called charge-parity symmetry, when most models say they don’t need to.
If they exist, axions are expected to be produced inside stars. These stellar axions are not the same as dark matter axions, but their existence would imply the existence of other kinds of axions.
One way to search for axions is by looking for excess radiation. Axions are expected to decay into pairs of photons in the presence of a magnetic field – so if more electromagnetic radiation than there should be is detected in a region where this decay is expected to take place, that could constitute evidence of axions.
In this case, excess hard X-radiation is exactly what astronomers have found when looking at the Magnificent Seven.
These neutron stars – the collapsed cores of dead massive stars that died in a supernova – are not clustered in a group, but share a number of traits in common. They are all isolated neutron stars of around middle-age, a few hundred thousand years since stellar death.
They are all cooling, emitting low-energy (soft) X-rays as they do so. They all have strong magnetic fields, trillions of times stronger than Earth’s, powerful enough to trigger axion decay. And they are all relatively nearby, within 1,500 light-years from Earth.
This makes them an excellent laboratory for looking for axions, and when a team of researchers – led by senior author and physicist Benjamin Safdi of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – studied the Magnificent Seven with multiple telescopes, they identified high-energy (hard) X-ray emission not expected for neutron stars of that type.
In space, however, there are many processes that can produce radiation, so the team had to carefully examine other potential sources of the emission. Pulsars, for instance, emit hard X-radiation; but the other kinds of radiation emitted by pulsars, such as radio waves, are not present in the Magnificent Seven.
Another possibility is that unresolved sources near the neutron stars could be producing the hard X-ray emission. But the datasets the team used, from two different space X-ray observatories – XMM-Newton and Chandra – indicated that the emission is coming from the neutron stars. Nor, the team found, is the signal likely to be the result of a pile-up of soft X-ray emission.
“We are pretty confident this excess exists, and very confident there’s something new among this excess,” Safdi said. “If we were 100 percent sure that what we are seeing is a new particle, that would be huge. That would be revolutionary in physics.”
That’s not to say that the excess is a new particle. It could be a previously unknown astrophysical process. Or it could be something as simple as an artefact from the telescopes or data processing.
“We’re not claiming that we’ve made the discovery of the axion yet, but we’re saying that the extra X-ray photons can be explained by axions,” Co said. “It is an exciting discovery of the excess in the X-ray photons, and it’s an exciting possibility that’s already consistent with our interpretation of axions.”
The next step will be to try to verify the finding. If the excess is produced by axions, then most of the radiation should be emitted at higher energies than XMM-Newton and Chandra are capable of detecting. The team hopes to use a newer telescope, NASA’s NuSTAR, to observe the Magnificent Seven across a wider range of wavelengths.
Magnetised white dwarf stars could be another place to look for axion emission. Like the Magnificent Seven, these objects have strong magnetic fields and are not expected to produce hard X-ray emission.
“This starts to be pretty compelling that this is something beyond the Standard Model if we see an X-ray excess there, too,” Safdi said.
We know that all the excess CO2 we’re pumping into the air – alongside a host of other damaging effects – is driving up the acidity of the oceans as it sinks and dissolves into the water, but it seems as though the hardy octopus can find ways to adapt to its rapidly changing environment.
Previous research into the impact of ocean acidification on cephalopods such as octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid has shown some indication increased carbon dioxide in the water could negatively impact this type of marine life.
However, in a new study, a group of Octopus rubescens – a species of octopus common to the west coast of North America – were observed adjusting their routine metabolic rate (RMR) over a series of weeks in response to lowering pH levels in the surrounding water.
“Challenges to an organism’s physiology are often reflected in changes in energy use and therefore can be observed as changes in aerobic metabolic rate,” write the researchers in their paper.
A total of 10 octopuses were studied under controlled lab conditions, with RMR measured immediately after exposure to acidic water, after one week, and after five weeks. Critical oxygen pressure – a measure of whether not not animals are getting enough oxygen – was monitored at the same time.
To begin with, high levels of metabolic change were detected in the creatures – a sort of shock reaction that actually conflicts with earlier research into cephalopods, which had recorded a reduction in metabolic change in similar scenarios.
However, RMR had returned to normal after one week, and remained the same five weeks later, suggesting some adaptation had occurred. The increased acidity did have an impact on the ability of the octopuses to function at low oxygen levels, however.
“This response in RMR suggests that O. rubescens is able to acclimate to elevated CO2 over time,” write the researchers. “The observed increase in RMR may be the result of multiple acute responses to hypercapnia [increased CO2 in the blood], possibly including both behavioural and physiological strategies.”
Those strategies could include preparing to move to find a new stretch of water to inhabit, for example, the researchers suggest (something that wasn’t possible here). The short RMR boost might also reflect the octopuses making quick adjustments to their biological processes to suit the new acid level.
The study is the first to look at both short-term (one week) and longer-term (five week) changes in metabolism rates in cephalopods in response to ocean acidification. We know these creatures are tough, and it seems they even have coping strategies that might allow them to adapt to humans destroying the natural environment all around them.
None of this means that we should be okay with the current climate crisis though, or not be trying to make major changes to reverse it. When we don’t take proper care of the planet, it’s not just ourselves that we’re potentially dooming to extinction.
Also, these tests were done in controlled laboratory conditions that don’t take into account many other interlinking factors in the animals’ natural environment. For instance, even if the octopus themselves are able to adjust, what about their food supply?
“While this species may be able to acclimate to near-term ocean acidification, compounding environmental effects of acidification and hypoxia may present a physiological challenge for this species,” write the researchers.
NASA announced Thursday that 2020 was likely the planet’s hottest year on record, edging out 2016 by one-tenth of a degree Celsius. The temperatures were close enough to fall within the scientists’ margin of error, so they considered it “a statistical tie.”
Average global temperatures in 2020 were 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than in the 30-year average between 1951 and 1980, NASA scientists found.
A second study of global warming conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that 2020 was actually the second-warmest year ever, behind 2016, perhaps due to the fact that NOAA researchers compared the annual temperature average to the 100-year average between 1901 and 2000.
Scientists can’t say whether an individual storm or fire was directly caused by climate change, since many factors contribute to each event. But experts agree that as the planet warms, weather becomes more extreme.
“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a press release.
Extreme weather is linked to rising temperatures
It’s probably no coincidence that Earth’s hottest year (tied or not) was plagued by bizarre weather.
Bushfires raged through eastern Australia in January. In South America, the largest tropical wetland on Earth went up in flames. Typhoon Goni barreled into the Philippines with sustained winds of 195 mph (313 km/h), making it the strongest tropical cyclone landfall in history. A huge glacier broke off a Greenland ice shelf and drifted into the sea.
“Global warming won’t necessarily increase overall tropical storm formation, but when we do get a storm it’s more likely to become stronger,” Jim Kossin, an atmospheric scientist at NOAA, told The Guardian. “And it’s the strong ones that really matter.”
The US saw $US95 billion in climate disaster damages
No part of the US was spared a disaster last year.
Heat waves dried out the West and a polar vortex chilled the Northeast.
Wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and Rockies forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes in late summer. Four million acres burned in California – more than double the previous state record. Fires killed at least 31 people in California, nine in Oregon, and one in Washington.
Colorado, too, saw three of the four largest fires in state history. The region hadn’t seen fires of that scale in 1,000 years, journalist Eric Holthaus reported.
At the same time, more hurricanes howled along the Gulf and Southeast coasts than in any other year in recorded history. Lake Charles, Louisiana didn’t have time to recover from one cyclone before the next one hit. Hurricane Laura ripped up homes with 150 mph (240 km/h) winds. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta dumped more than 15 inches (38 cm) of rain.
The centre of the continental US, meanwhile, endured record storms, floods, and tornado swarms.
All told, the US had 22 weather and climate disasters in 2020 that cost the nation $US1 billion in damages or more – blowing by the previous annual record of 16 disasters in 2017.
The 22 billion-dollar disasters – seven linked to tropical cyclones, 13 to severe storms, one to drought, and one to wildfires – totaled $US95 billion in damages, according to NOAA.
No place to hide
Earth’s warming over time makes one thing increasingly clear: Soon, if not already, there will be no place to hide from the destructive consequences of humans’ climate-altering behaviour.
Extreme heat could make some regions across the central US, Middle East, and Australia almost unlivable in the summers. Scientists expect extreme storms and fires to get worse, too. All that could deal a severe blow to food production.
Some cities are also expected to run out of water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects severe reductions in water resources for 8 percent of the global population from 2021 to 2040.
The Amazon rainforest, the world’s coral reefs, and the Greenland ice sheet are all at risk of collapse. The Arctic is on track to lose more ice this century than at any point since the last Ice Age. By 2100, rising sea levels could swallow cities like New Orleans, Boston, Venice, Lagos, and Jakarta, driving waves of refugees inland.
“Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends,” Schmidt said. “With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”
NASA’s mega-sized moon rocket encountered an engine issue during a critical test on Saturday, and the error could further delay the agency’s effort to send astronauts back to the moon.
The rocket, called Space Launch System (SLS), is designed to eventually stand 365 feet (111 meters) and ferry astronauts to the moon sometime in the mid- to late-2020s.
The system is an essential piece of a larger program called Artemis, a roughly $US30 billion effort to put boots back on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. NASA has spent about US$18 billion developing the rocket.
The SLS core stage – the system’s largest piece and its structural backbone – was assembled and heavily strapped down at Stennis Space Centre in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Saturday for a critical “hot fire” test.
The core stage is the world’s largest and most powerful rocket stage, according to NASA. It hosts five mains sections, including a 537,000-gallon (2 million-litre) tank for liquid hydrogen, a 196,000-gallon (742,000-litre) tank for liquid oxygen, four RS-25 engines, avionics computers, and other subsystems.
Boeing is the lead contractor for the stage, and Aerojet Rocketdyne is responsible for its RS-25 engines, which used to help propel NASA’s fleet of space shuttles.
The fuel tanks were filled with 733,000 gallons of cryogenically chilled propellant on Saturday, and the engines roared to life at about 5:27 pm EST.
“It was like an earthquake,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters in a press conference after the test.
“It was a magnificent moment. And it just brought joy that after all this time, now we’ve got a rocket. The only rocket on the face of the planet capable of taking humans to the moon was firing all four RS-25 engines at the same time.”
The engines were supposed to fire continuously for eight minutes. But about one minute into the test, the engine controller sent a command to the core-stage controller to shut them down.
Crews at Stennis Space Centre lift the core stage into place on Jan 22. (NASA)
Controllers had seen a flash next to the thermal-protection blanket covering engine four. Shortly afterward, that engine registered an MCF, or “major component failure”. It’s not yet clear what happened.
“At the time that they made the call we did still have four good engines up and running at 109 percent,” John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, said in the press conference.
The whole thing was captured on NASA’s live broadcast:
“The amount of progress that we’ve made here today is remarkable. And no, this is not a failure. This is a test. And we tested today in a way that is meaningful, where we’re going to learn and we’re going to make adjustments and we’re going to fly to the moon,” Bridenstine said.
The SLS team will spend the next few days poring over data from the test, assessing the core stage and the engines to figure out what happened and how to move forward.
NASA may need to re-do the hot fire test
Saturday’s hot fire was supposed to be the eighth and final step in NASA’s “Green Run,” a program designed to thoroughly test each part of the core stage ahead of SLS’s first launch, called Artemis 1 – an uncrewed test flight currently scheduled for November 2021.
But that timeline may be unrealistic now. If the hot fire went well, NASA was planning to ship the rocket to Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida in February. There, workers would stack all the segments of the two boosters required for sending Artemis 1 around the moon.
It’s unclear how long it will take NASA to correct the engine error and get the core stage to Florida now.
“It depends what the anomaly was and how challenging it’s going to be to fix it. And we’ve got a lot to learn to figure that out,” Bridenstine said.
“It very well could be that it’s something that’s easily fixable and we could feel confident going down to the Cape and staying on schedule. It’s also true that we could find a challenge that’s going to take more time.”
The agency may have to redo the hot fire test. The SLS team wanted to get to at least 250 seconds of the engines firing together to have high confidence in the vehicle. Saturday’s test lasted for just over 60 seconds.
It would take at least four or five days to prepare the Stennis Space Centre facilities for another test. If NASA needs to swap the current engines for new ones, workers can do it on-site at the Stennis Space Centre. Honeycutt estimated it would take about seven to 10 days to do that.
“This is why we test,” Bridenstine said. “Before we put American astronauts on American rockets, that’s when we need it to be perfect.”
Iceland has genetically sequenced all its positive COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, an increasingly vital practice as worrying new strains emerge from Britain and South Africa.
The World Health Organization on Friday urged all countries to ramp up genome sequencing to help combat the emerging variants.
Scientists at the Icelandic biopharma group deCODE Genetics’ laboratory in Reykjavik have worked relentlessly for the past 10 months, analysing each positive coronavirus test in Iceland at the request of the country’s health authorities.
The aim is to trace every case in order to prevent problematic ones from slipping through the net.
“It takes us relatively short time to do the actual sequencing,” explains the head of the lab, Olafur Thor Magnusson, adding that “about three hours” is all that is needed to determine the virus strain.
The entire process, from isolating the DNA to sequencing it, can take up to a day and a half, and has enabled Iceland to identify 463 separate variants – which scientists call haplotypes.
Prior to sequencing, the DNA of each sample is first isolated, then purified using magnetic beads.
The samples are then taken to a massive, bright room full of equipment, where a deafening sound emanates from small machines resembling scanners.
The machines are gene sequencers which map the novel coronavirus genome.
Inside each machine is a black box called a “flow cell”, a glass slide that contains the DNA molecules.
This technology has played a large role in Iceland since the start of the pandemic.
“The sequencing of samples is key to helping us follow the state and development of the epidemic,” Health Minister Svandis Svavarsdottir told AFP.
Authorities have used the sequencing information to decide on precise, targeted measures to curb the spread of the virus, she said.
While the South African variant has not been detected in Iceland, 41 people have been identified as carriers of the British variant.
All of them were stopped at the border – where PCR tests are conducted on travellers – effectively preventing the variant’s transmission on the subarctic island.
DNA identification also made it possible to establish a clear link between visitors of a pub in central Reykjavik and the majority of infections in a new wave in mid-September – leading authorities to close bars and nightclubs in the capital.
Sequencing also identified a separate strain from two French tourists who tested positive on arrival in Iceland, and who were initially accused – mistakenly – of being the cause of the September surge.
All of the around 6,000 COVID-19 cases reported in Iceland have been sequenced, making it the world leader in COVID sequencing.
While several countries, such as Britain, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand, carry out high levels of sequencing, none of them come anywhere near Iceland’s levels, although global statistics are incomplete.
So why is Iceland so far ahead of the game?
Gene mapping is deCODE’s speciality.
Founded in 1996, the company has carried out the largest ever genetic study of a population.
For a 2015 study on cancer risk factors, it sequenced the entire genome of 2,500 Icelanders and studied the genetic profile of a third of the then-population of 330,000.
Compared to that, sequencing COVID-19 samples is child’s play.
“It’s very easy to sequence this viral genome: it’s only 30,000 nucleotides, it’s nothing,” quips Kari Stefansson, the 71-year-old founder and chief executive of the company.
By comparison, the human genome normally analysed in his labs consists of 3.4 billion pairs of nucleotides, or organic molecules, he adds.
While Iceland’s rigorous sequencing has been useful for tracking the spread of the virus, it has yet to lead to any major scientific discoveries for deCODE.
“If there are differences between viruses with the various pattern mutations, they aren’t very obvious. Not sufficiently obvious for us to pick it up,” says Stefansson.
Red dwarf stars are the most common kind of star in our neighbourhood, and probably in the Milky Way. Because of that, many of the Earth-like and potentially life-supporting exoplanets we’ve detected are in orbit around red dwarfs. The problem is that red dwarfs can exhibit intense flaring behaviour, much more energetic than our relatively placid Sun.
So what does that mean for the potential of those exoplanets to actually support life?
Most life on Earth, and likely on other worlds, relies on stellar energy to survive. The Sun has been the engine for life on Earth since the first cells reproduced. But sometimes, like all stars, the Sun acts up and emits flares.
Sometimes it emits extremely energetic flares. The powerful magnetic energy in the Sun’s atmosphere becomes unstable, and an enormous amount of energy is released. If it’s released towards Earth, it can cause problems. It can lead to disruptions in radio communications and even blackouts.
But in terms of flaring activity, the Sun is relatively weak compared to some other stars. Some stars, especially red dwarfs, can flare frequently and violently. A team of researchers studied how flaring activity affects the atmosphere and potential for life on Earth-like planets orbiting low-mass stars, including M-type stars, K-type stars, and G-type stars.
Art of a flaring red dwarf star, orbited by an exoplanet. (NASA/ESA/G. Bacon/STScI)
“Our Sun is more of a gentle giant,” said Allison Youngblood, an astronomer at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-author of the study.
“It’s older and not as active as younger and smaller stars. Earth also has a strong magnetic field, which deflects the Sun’s damaging winds.”
That helps explain why Earth is positively “rippling with life” as Carl Sagan described our planet. But for planets orbiting low-mass stars like red dwarfs (M-dwarfs) the situation is much different.
We know that solar flares and associated coronal mass ejections can be very damaging to the prospects of life on unprotected exoplanets. The authors write in their introduction that “[s]tellar activity – which includes stellar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and stellar proton events (SPEs) – has a profound influence on a planet’s habitability, primarily via its effect on atmospheric ozone.”
A single flare here and there over time doesn’t have much effect. But many red dwarfs exhibit more frequent and prolonged flaring.
“We compared the atmospheric chemistry of planets experiencing frequent flares with planets experiencing no flares. The long-term atmospheric chemistry is very different,” said Northwestern’s Howard Chen, the study’s first author, in a press release.
“Continuous flares actually drive a planet’s atmospheric composition into a new chemical equilibrium.”
One of the things the team looked at was ozone, and the effect flares have on it. Here on Earth, our ozone layer helps protects us from the Sun’s UV radiation. But extreme flaring activity on red dwarfs can destroy ozone in the atmosphere of planets orbiting close to it.
When ozone levels drop, a planet is less protected from UV radiation coming from its star. Powerful UV radiation can diminish the possibility of life.
In their study, the team used models to help understand flaring and its effects on exoplanet atmospheres. They used flaring data from NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and long-term exoplanet climate data from other studies. They found some cases where ozone persisted, despite flaring.
“We’ve found that stellar flares might not preclude the existence of life,” added Daniel Horton, the study’s senior author. “In some cases, flaring doesn’t erode all of the atmospheric ozone. Surface life might still have a fighting chance.”
(Chen et al, Nature Astronomy, 2020)
IMAGE: This figure from the study shows global-mean vertical profiles of atmospheric species on a simulated planet around a Sun-like G-type star. From left to right are the mixing ratios for ozone, nitrous oxide, nitric acid, and water vapour.
Planets that can support life, at least potentially, can be in a tough spot. They must be close enough to their stars to prevent their water from freezing, but not too close or they’re too hot. But this dance with proximity can expose them to the powerful flares.
Red dwarfs are smaller and cooler than our Sun, so that means the habitable zone for any planets orbiting them is smaller and much closer to the star than Earth is to the Sun. That not only exposes them to flares but leads to planets being tidally locked to their stars.
The combination of flaring and tidal-locking can be bad for life’s prospects. Earth’s rotation generates its protective magnetosphere, but tidally-locked planets can’t generate one and are largely unprotected from stellar UV radiation.
“We studied planets orbiting within the habitable zones of M and K dwarf stars – the most common stars in the universe,” Horton said.
“Habitable zones around these stars are narrower because the stars are smaller and less powerful than stars like our Sun. On the flip side, M and K dwarf stars are thought to have more frequent flaring activity than our Sun, and their tidally locked planets are unlikely to have magnetic fields helping deflect their stellar winds.”
(Chen et al, 2020)
IMAGE: This figure from the study shows how repeated stellar flaring can alter the atmospheric gases in a simulated Earth-like planet around a Sun-like star.
There’s a more positive side to this study as well. The team found that flaring activity can actually help the search for life.
The flares can make it easier to detect some gases which are biomarkers. In this case, they found energy from flaring can highlight the presence of gases like nitric acid, nitrous dioxide, and nitrous oxide, which can all be indicators of living processes.
(Chen et al, 2020)
IMAGE: This figure from the study shows how repeated stellar flaring can affect the atmospheric chemistry on a modelled Earth-like planet around a K-type star. Note the raised levels of detectable NO, a potential bio-marker.
“Space weather events are typically viewed as a detriment to habitability,” Chen said.
“But our study quantitatively showed that some space weather can actually help us detect signatures of important gases that might signify biological processes.”
But only some. In other cases, their work showed that flaring can destroy potential biosignatures from anoxic life.
“Although we report the 3D effects of stellar flares on oxidizing atmospheres, strong flares could have other unexpected impacts on atmospheres with reducing conditions. For instance, hydrogen oxide species derived from stellar flares could destroy key anoxic biosignatures such as methane, dimethyl sulfide and carbonyl sulfide, thereby suppressing their spectroscopic features,” the authors report.
Another interesting result of this study concerns exoplanet magnetospheres. They find that hyperflares may help reveal the nature and extent of magnetospheres.
“More speculatively, proton events during hyperflares may reveal the existence of planetary-scale magnetic fields by highlighting particular regions of the planet. By identifying nitrogen- or hydrogen oxide-emitting flux fingerprints during magnetic storms and/or auroral precipitation events, one may be able to determine the geometric extent of exoplanetary magnetospheres.”
(Chen et al, 2020)
IMAGE: Hyperflares might help us understand the extent of exoplanet magnetospheres by identifying the extent of nitrogen oxide flux fingerprints.
Other recent research has suggested that exoplanets subjected to flaring, especially around red dwarf stars, are not great locations to search for life. The flaring activity is too detrimental. But this study shows that there’s more complexity to the situation.
Overall it shows that flaring could help us detect biosignatures in some cases. It also shows that while flaring can disrupt exoplanet atmospheres, in many cases they return to normal. It’s also a fact that low-mass stars live much longer than stars like our Sun, meaning there’s more time for life to develop on their planets.
This new work highlights how complicated the search for life is, and how many variables are involved. And it contains at least one surprise. Whereas flaring has been largely considered detrimental to exoplanet habitability, the fact that it may help detect biosignatures means there’s more going on than expected.
This research required cooperation from scientists across many disciplines. It relied on climate scientists, astronomers, observers and theorists, and of course, exoplanet scientists.
“This project was a result of fantastic collective team effort,” said Eric T. Wolf, a planetary scientist at CU Boulder and a co-author of the study.
“Our work highlights the benefits of interdisciplinary efforts when investigating conditions on extrasolar planets.”
While researchers debate the details, most are in agreement that our existing lifestyle is fundamentally linked with insect numbers, and unless we act fast, we can expect trouble in the future.
In a series of papers published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), experts sum up the state of insect numbers as a measure of biomass, individual numbers, and species. And no matter which way we cut it, it’s an issue we really need to get on top of.
Saul Cunningham from the Australian National University wasn’t one of the 56 authors contributing to the commentary. But as Director of the Fenner School of Environment & Society at the university, he’s aware of just how important insects are to our communal wellbeing.
“Insects are hugely important to ecological processes that humans rely on, including the provision of food and recycling of nutrients into the soil,” says Cunnigham.
“That is why they have been described as the little things that run the world.”
Those ‘little things’ have been running vital ecological processes for hundreds of millions of years, diversifying into more than a million extant species. And that’s just the ones we’ve counted. It’s hard to imagine a world without them.
Yet in recent decades the ranges and proportions of many species have dipped significantly, most likely due to factors such as changing temperatures, rainfall, habitat loss, and pesticide use.
Most commonly cited statistics put estimates of insect biomass loss at around 1 to 2 percent per annum – a shocking figure made all the more alarming when local variations are taken into account, with some areas seeing losses of 10 percent or more every year.
“They also show that insect declines are not universal, with losses not apparent for some other regions,” says Cunnigham.
“The studies add significant urgency to the case that we need to develop agricultural practices that support healthy and diverse insect populations.”
Not only is the decline not universal, in some parts of the globe insects are having a hey-day. Especially in temperate climates, many species are booming, most likely due to rising temperatures pushing ranges of habitat out towards the poles.
But just because the big picture is complicated, it doesn’t mean we ought to be complacent. For one thing, the loss of even a few less robust species in the midst of global climate change could be a sign that worse is to come.
As to thriving insect populations, a surplus of moths, water-striders and cockroaches won’t mean much when crops fail in the wake of lost pollinators, or garbage overflows for want of specialist detritivores.
Entomologist Akito Kawahara from the Florida Museum of Natural History co-authored one of the journal’s opinion pieces, urging communities to do more to ensure there are plenty of creepy-crawlies around to continue their hard work.
“In the US alone, wild insects contribute an estimated US$70 billion to the economy every year through free services such as pollination and waste disposal. That’s incredible, and most people have no idea,” says Kawahara.
He and his team outlined a handful of simple actions we can all undertake to do our bit to ensure local biodiversity remains strong.
For example, keeping outside lights off at night, or switching bulbs to avoid luring insects away from habitats where they’re doing more good; washing your car and driveway with biodegradable soaps, and using soy-based driveway sealants.
Some of the suggestions don’t even require lifting a hand. Got a lawn? Hold off on mowing for a few weeks. Better still, rip up a portion of it and replace with some natives. Kawahara recommends reserving a chunk of your yard space for insects, which means no pesticide and plenty of choice in vegetation.
“If every home, school and local park in the US converted 10 percent of lawn into natural habitat, this would give insects an extra 4 million acres of habitat,” he advises.
Hopefully, 2021 will see even more studies on insect numbers in flux around our planet, painting a complex scene of species in freefall and others breaking new ground. We’re going to need all the information we can get.
“We can learn from those places that are not witnessing dramatic insect declines,” says Cunnigham.
“Globally we are not monitoring insect populations in a widespread or systematic way, which limits our power to respond.”