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We Need to Talk About The Rapid Decline in Insects Around The World

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Apocalypse or revolution? Depending on the study making headlines, insect numbers around the world are either in dramatic freefall or simply an alarming state of flux, with some species even benefiting from changes in climate.

 

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.

It’s a great time to be alive if you’re a southern British species of moth, for example. With environmental protection laws cleaning up waterways, populations of aquatic bugs and beetles are on the rise.

 

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.”

This research was published in PNAS.

 



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Calculations Show It’ll Be Impossible to Control a Super-Intelligent AI

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The idea of artificial intelligence overthrowing humankind has been talked about for many decades, and scientists have just delivered their verdict on whether we’d be able to control a high-level computer super-intelligence. The answer? Almost definitely not.

 

The catch is that controlling a super-intelligence far beyond human comprehension would require a simulation of that super-intelligence which we can analyse. But if we’re unable to comprehend it, it’s impossible to create such a simulation.

Rules such as ’cause no harm to humans’ can’t be set if we don’t understand the kind of scenarios that an AI is going to come up with, suggest the authors of the new paper. Once a computer system is working on a level above the scope of our programmers, we can no longer set limits.

“A super-intelligence poses a fundamentally different problem than those typically studied under the banner of ‘robot ethics’,” write the researchers.

“This is because a superintelligence is multi-faceted, and therefore potentially capable of mobilising a diversity of resources in order to achieve objectives that are potentially incomprehensible to humans, let alone controllable.”

Part of the team’s reasoning comes from the halting problem put forward by Alan Turing in 1936. The problem centres on knowing whether or not a computer program will reach a conclusion and answer (so it halts), or simply loop forever trying to find one.

 

As Turing proved through some smart math, while we can know that for some specific programs, it’s logically impossible to find a way that will allow us to know that for every potential program that could ever be written. That brings us back to AI, which in a super-intelligent state could feasibly hold every possible computer program in its memory at once.

Any program written to stop AI harming humans and destroying the world, for example, may reach a conclusion (and halt) or not – it’s mathematically impossible for us to be absolutely sure either way, which means it’s not containable.

“In effect, this makes the containment algorithm unusable,” says computer scientist Iyad Rahwan, from the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany.

The alternative to teaching AI some ethics and telling it not to destroy the world – something which no algorithm can be absolutely certain of doing, the researchers say – is to limit the capabilities of the super-intelligence. It could be cut off from parts of the internet or from certain networks, for example.

The new study rejects this idea too, suggesting that it would limit the reach of the artificial intelligence – the argument goes that if we’re not going to use it to solve problems beyond the scope of humans, then why create it at all?

If we are going to push ahead with artificial intelligence, we might not even know when a super-intelligence beyond our control arrives, such is its incomprehensibility. That means we need to start asking some serious questions about the directions we’re going in.

“A super-intelligent machine that controls the world sounds like science fiction,” says computer scientist Manuel Cebrian, from the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development. “But there are already machines that perform certain important tasks independently without programmers fully understanding how they learned it.”

“The question therefore arises whether this could at some point become uncontrollable and dangerous for humanity.”

The research has been published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research.

 



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These Gravity-Defying Hills Are One of The Weirdest Natural Phenomena We’ve Seen

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Scattered across the world are a number of bewildering ‘mystery spots’ that appear to defy gravity – places where cars seem to drift uphill, and cyclists struggle to push themselves downhill.

 

Also known as gravity hills, these bizarre natural phenomena can be found in places like Confusion Hill in California and Magnetic Hill in Canada, and while they’ve inspired rumours of witchcraft and giant magnets buried in the countryside, the actual scientific explanation will have you questioning every slope you encounter from here on out.

There are reportedly dozens of gravity hills around the world, in the US, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Italy, and they all have one thing in common – if you drive your car to the bottom of the hill and put it in neutral, it will proceed to roll back UP the slope.

Check out this car on a gravity hill in Aryshire, Scotland:

car-hill(Science Channel)

You can literally get out of your car and watch it drift up and away.

This YouTuber sent a ball down a road in Pennsylvania, only to have it roll back up the hill towards him:

ball-hill(Phenomenal Travel Videos)

So what’s actually going on here? Turns out, these bizarre natural phenomena are just an elaborate optical illusion – an illusion so good, it’d be impossible to believe it without the proper equipment.

 

But if you get some surveying equipment or GPS markers to actually measure the difference between the ‘top’ of the slope and the ‘bottom’, you’ll realise that everything is actually in reverse. 

“The embankment is sloped in a way that gives you the effect that you are going uphill,” materials physicist Brock Weiss from Pennsylvania State University told Discoveries and Breakthroughs in Science back in 2006.

“You are, indeed, going downhill, even though your brain gives you the impression that you’re going uphill.”

But if a hill is physically sloping one way – so much so that cars actually gain quite a bit of momentum when they start drifting ‘up’ – how could our eyes trick us so bad every time?

According to psychologists, it’s all about the horizon – either it’s obscured in areas with gravity hills, so we don’t have a proper point of reference, or the horizon is there, but it obscures how the hill slopes in relation to the rest of the landscape.

The latter explanation appears to be at work in Aryshire, Scotland.

“We’re standing within a tilted landmass,” UK psychologist Rob Macintosh from the University of Edinburgh tells the Science Channel in the video below

“The whole landscape tilts this way, and the road tilts in the same direction, but by a smaller amount, so the relative slope appears to go the [opposite] way.”

And here’s that Pennsylvania gravity hill:

A 2003 study looked into how the absence of a horizon can also skew our perspective on gravity hills by recreating a number of real-life ‘antigravity’ places in the lab to see how volunteers would react. 

Researchers from the Universities of Padova and Pavia in Italy built tabletop models of several gravity hills around the world and got volunteers to peer at them through a hole that gave them the perspective of actually being there.

 

They then messed around with the horizon in the model to see how that would affect the volunteers’ perspective on which way the slope ran.

They found that without a true horizon in sight, landmarks such as trees and signs actually played tricks on the volunteers’ brains.

“We found that perceived slope depends on the height of the visible horizon; that surface slant tends to be underestimated relative to the horizontal plane; and that when preceded, followed, or flanked by a steep downhill slope – a slightly downhill stretch is perceived as uphill,” the team reports in Psychological Science.

“The visual (and psychological!) effects obtained in our experiments were in all respects analogous to those experienced on site. After each observer’s task was concluded, we placed a small roll of tape on the misperceived slope, and the tape appeared to move against the law of gravity – producing surprise and, on occasion, reverential fear.”

So, there you have it; thanks, brains. It just goes to show, as robust as the human mind is, perspective is everything.

A version of this article was first published in March 2017.

 



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How a Science Fight Finally Led to World’s First Global Species List in 2020

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Taxonomy, or the naming of species, is the foundation of modern biology.

It might sound like a fairly straightforward exercise, but in fact it’s complicated and often controversial. Why? Because there’s no one agreed list of all the world’s species.

 

Competing lists exist for organisms such as mammals and birds, while other less well-known groups have none. And there are more than 30 definitions of what constitutes a species. This can make life difficult for biodiversity researchers and those working in areas such as conservation, biosecurity and regulation of the wildlife trade.

In the past few years, a public debate erupted among global taxonomists, including those who authored and contributed to this article, about whether the rules of taxonomy should be changed. Strongly worded ripostes were exchanged. A comparison to Stalin was floated.

But eventually, we all came together to resolve the dispute amicably. In a paper published in July, we proposed a new set of principles to guide what one day, we hope, will be a single authoritative list of the world’s species. This would help manage and conserve them for future generations.

In the process, we’ve shown how a scientific stoush can be overcome when those involved try to find common ground.

How it all began

In May 2017 two of the authors, Stephen Garnett and Les Christidis, published an article in Nature. They argued taxonomy needed rules around what should be called a species, because currently there are none. They wrote:

for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of complex organisms) is remarkably anarchic […] There is reasonable agreement among taxonomists that a species should represent a distinct evolutionary lineage. But there is none about how a lineage should be defined.

‘Species’ are often created or dismissed arbitrarily, according to the individual taxonomist’s adherence to one of at least 30 definitions. Crucially, there is no global oversight of taxonomic decisions — researchers can ‘split or lump’ species with no consideration of the consequences.

Garnett and Christidis proposed that any changes to the taxonomy of complex organisms be overseen by the highest body in the global governance of biology, the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), which would “restrict […] freedom of taxonomic action.”

 

An animated response

Garnett and Christidis’ article raised hackles in some corners of the taxonomy world – including coauthors of this article.

These critics rejected the description of taxonomy as “anarchic”. In fact, they argued there are detailed rules around the naming of species administered by groups such as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. For 125 years, the codes have been almost universally adopted by scientists.

So in March 2018, 183 researchers – led by Scott Thomson and Richard Pyle – wrote an animated response to the Nature article, published in PLOS Biology.

They wrote that Garnett and Christidis’ IUBS proposal was “flawed in terms of scientific integrity […] but is also untenable in practice”. They argued:

Through taxonomic research, our understanding of biodiversity and classifications of living organisms will continue to progress. Any system that restricts such progress runs counter to basic scientific principles, which rely on peer review and subsequent acceptance or rejection by the community, rather than third-party regulation.

In a separate paper, another group of taxonomists accused Garnett and Christidis of trying to suppress freedom of scientific thought, likening them to Stalin’s science advisor Trofim Lysenko.

 

Finding common ground

This might have been the end of it. But the editor at PLOS Biology, Roli Roberts, wanted to turn consternation into constructive debate, and invited a response from Garnett and Christidis. In the to and fro of articles, we all found common ground.

We recognised the powerful need for a global list of species – representing a consensus view of the world’s taxonomists at a particular time.

Such lists do exist. The Catalogue of Life, for example, has done a remarkable job in assembling lists of almost all the world’s species. But there are no rules on how to choose between competing lists of validly named species. What was needed, we agreed, was principles governing what can be included on lists.

As it stands now, anyone can name a species, or decide which to recognise as valid and which not. This creates chaos. It means international agreements on biodiversity conservation, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), take different taxonomic approaches to species they aim to protect.

 

We decided to work together. With funding from the IUBS, we held a workshop in February [2020] at Charles Darwin University to determine principles for devising a single, agreed global list of species.

Participants came from around the world. They included taxonomists, science governance experts, science philosophers, administrators of the nomenclatural (naming) codes, and taxonomic users such as the creators of national species lists.

The result is a draft set of ten principles that to us, represent the ideals of global science governance. They include that:

  • the species list be based on science and free from “non-taxonomic” interference
  • all decisions about composition of the list be transparent
  • governance of the list aim for community support and use
  • the listing process encompasses global diversity while accommodating local knowledge.

The principles will now be discussed at international workshops of taxonomists and the users of taxonomy. We’ve also formed a working group to discuss how a global list might come together and the type of institution needed to look after it.

We hope by 2030, a scientific debate that began with claims of anarchy might lead to a clear governance system – and finally, the world’s first endorsed global list of species.

The following people provided editorial comment for this article: Aaron M Lien, Frank Zachos, John Buckeridge, Kevin Thiele, Svetlana Nikolaeva, Zhi-Qiang Zhang, Donald Hobern, Olaf Banki, Peter Paul van Dijk, Saroj Kanta Barik and Stijn Conix. The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Professor, Southern Cross University; Richard L. Pyle, Associate lecturer, University of Hawaii, and Scott Thomson, Research associate, Universidade de São Paulo.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 



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On Top of Everything Else, 2020 Has Tied For The Hottest Year on Record

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2020 has tied 2016 as the hottest year on record, the European Union’s climate monitoring service said Friday, keeping Earth on a global warming fast track that could devastate large swathes of humanity.

 

The six years since 2015 are the six warmest ever registered, as are 20 of the last 21, evidence of a persistent and deepening trend, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) reported.

Last year’s record high – a soaring 1.25 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – was all the more alarming because it came without the help of a periodic natural weather event known as an El Nino, which added up to two-tenths of a degree to the 2016 average, according NASA and Britain’s Met Office.

“It is quite clear that in the absence of El Nino and La Nina impacts on year-to-year temperatures, 2020 would be the warmest year on record,” Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California, told AFP.

During an El Nino, which occurs every two to seven years, warm surface water in the tropical Pacific Ocean can boost global temperatures. La Ninas – such as one currently underway – have the opposite cooling effect.

“2020 stands out for its exceptional warmth,” said C3S director Carlo Buontempo.

“This is yet another reminder of the urgency of ambitious emissions reductions to prevent adverse climate impacts in the future.”

 

In 2015, the world’s nations vowed to cap global warming “well below” 2C, and 1.5C if possible.

A subsequent report from the UN’s climate science advisory panel, the IPCC, left no doubt that 1.5C was the safer threshold.

With just over 1C of warming so far, the world has seen a crescendo of deadly droughts, heatwaves, flood-inducing rainfall, and superstorms made more destructive by rising seas.

2020 witnessed a record number, for example, of hurricanes in the Atlantic – so many that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) ran out of letters in the alphabet to name them.

‘Shut off the tap’

Some regions last year experienced warming well beyond the global average, according the Copernicus report, based largely on satellite data.

Europe’s average surface temperature across 2020 was a searing 2.2C over the pre-industrial benchmark – and nearly half a degree above 2019, the previous record year.

Warming in the Arctic region was even more spectacular, with northern Siberia and parts of the Arctic itself nearly 7C above mid-19th century levels.

Wildfires across Siberia lasting well into the autumn released a record quarter billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the annual emissions of Spain, Egypt or Vietnam, and a third more than in 2019, the previous record year.

 

CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere peaked at 413 parts per million, nearly 50 percent more than in the early 18th century, before fossil fuel burning began to load the skies with heat-trapping greenhouse gases, C3S reported.

These unprecedented levels were reached despite a seven percent drop in emissions due to pandemic lockdowns.

“Since CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere like water in a bathtub, if we turn down the tap by seven percent, the CO2 level just rises a bit more slowly,” Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told AFP.

“We need to shut off the tap to get a stable climate again.”

Global emissions were on a steady upward trend through 2019, and it remains unclear whether humanity will return to “business as usual” or begin to ratchet down carbon pollution quickly enough to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

Even if all nations fullfil pledges submitted in annex to the 2015 Paris Agreement, the planet would still heat up more than 3C by century’s end.

“The world has been warming at a steady rate of around 0.2C per decade since the 1970s due to human emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases,” noted Hausfather.

“If we continue at our current rate we will pass 1.5C in the mid-2030s.”

© Agence France-Presse

 



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Scientists Are Sharing Memories of The Iconic Arecibo Telescope, And It’s Emotional

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The mighty Arecibo telescope will be closed forever, the US National Science Foundation has decided.

But the radio telescope which brought us confirmation of the first exoplanet in 1992 will undoubtedly live on in the hearts and minds of scientists, many of who took to social media to mourn the end of an era and to celebrate how Arecibo had changed their lives and inspired their careers.

 

The iconic radio telescope was the world’s largest for decades, and it’s weathered a few hurricanes as well as pop-culture fame in its 57 years of beaming out interstellar messages and receiving radio wave signals from space. 

Alas, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided that it cannot safely repair the telescope after two surprise cable failures, one in August and another in early November, ripped gigantic holes in Arecibo’s 305-metre-wide (1,000 ft) reflector dish.

“For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement announcing the decision to decommission the telescope.

Scientists are gutted by the news and have been flooding social media with posts under the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe

“What I love the most about working with Arecibo is how it is a community institution,” said astronomer Kevin Ortiz Ceballos from the University of Puerto Rico. “[I]t has broadened Puerto Rican participation in science in immeasurable ways.” 

The Arecibo Observatory, named after its nearest city on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, became a major centre for science education and provided priceless training opportunities for many aspiring Puerto Rican scientists, too.

 

Among Arecibo’s greatest achievements was observing the first set of binary pulsar stars in 1974, a discovery which would pave the way to detecting gravitational waves for the first time, some 40 years later.

It was also the scene of first dates and wedding ceremonies, of Hollywood movie shoots and eye-opening school field trips.

The Arecibo Observatory is part of Puerto Rican culture and gave Puerto Ricans the opportunity to do science in their own backyard, said Kelby D. Palencia-Torres, a physics student at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez.

“It’s more than an icon, a tool, a structure, it is a community that has been built with no barriers. Connecting people from all over the world … as well inspiring young kids to explore,” he said.

Puerto Rican scientist Junellie González Quiles, now a doctoral student at John Hopkins University, recounted how she was inspired to study astronomy after astronomers bearing telescopes from the Arecibo Observatory visited her summer camp.

 

“It sparked an interest that only grew as years went on, and it was my goal to do research at the Arecibo Observatory when I was older,” said González Quiles, who later attended the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy.

“If it hadn’t been for this program at the Arecibo Observatory, I would not be where I am today,” she said. “I would not be a graduate student. It changed my life.”

Evident in the stream of #WhatAreciboMeansToMe posts is that Arecibo not only galvanised generations of planetary scientists, astronomers and astrophysicists; it also inspired leagues of biologists, engineers and instrument scientists, too.

Botanist Amelia Merced said visiting the Arecibo Observatory on a school excursion made her realise she could be a scientist.

“The presence of the largest telescope in this small island, listening to the universe in search of life. Sounded like a dream but it was real,” Merced said

Shark scientist Melissa Cristina Márquez similarly reflected on what Arecibo meant to her as a Puerto Rican who has followed a career in science all the way to Curtin University in Australia.

 

“It was more than a telescope to me. It was a beacon of hope – that things and people made in #PuertoRico could thrive on the world stage,” she said.

“Arecibo showed me that we mattered. I am so, so proud of this telescope and all it represents.”

However sad it will be to see the grand Arecibo dismantled, the telescope will surely remain a fixture for the part it played in our search for extraterrestrial life and the hunt for gravitational waves.

 





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New Zealand Study Reveals The Complex Psychological Toll of Pandemic Lockdowns

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2020 has not been a good year for mental health. The emergence of a global pandemic has left many people fearing for their lives, stressing over their finances, panicking over the news, and yearning for their loved ones.

 

While we’re still not sure what the mental health toll will be, the World Health Organisation expects levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour to rise.

Of all the nations in the world, New Zealand took some of the fastest and most drastic measures to COVID-19. And while this ‘go early, go hard’ strategy saved many lives and ultimately eliminated the virus, the successful measures also came with their costs – not just to the economy but also to public wellbeing.

Roughly halfway through New Zealand’s toughest stage of lockdown, which lasted for 33 days, a public survey saw levels of stress, anxiety, and depression rise higher than normal, especially among younger people. 

Among the 2,010 respondents, nearly a third scored above the cut-off for moderate to severe psychological distress, and almost 40 percent said their level of wellbeing was low.

It’s worth noting the study couldn’t distinguish whether it was the lockdown itself that was causing the mental health effects or the broader threat of the pandemic, but it still shows a worrying trend.

 

“New Zealand’s lockdown successfully eliminated COVID-19 from the community, but our results show this achievement brought a significant psychological toll,” says psychologist Susanna Every-Palmer from the University of Otago, Canada.

“Substantially increased rates of distress were seen among those who reported having lost their jobs or experienced a reduction in work as a result of the pandemic, those who had potential vulnerabilities to COVID-19, or identified their health status as poor, and those who had a past diagnosis of a mental illness.”

On the whole, it was younger people, between the ages of 18 and 24, who appeared to have the toughest time, with almost half receiving a score well above the threshold for moderate psychological distress.

Older folks, on the other hand, seemed to weather the storm much easier, despite being more at risk from the virus and despite being less connected online as a group.

“This is not to say older people were unscathed,” the authors explain.

“In our survey, psychological distress was more prevalent among people of all age groups when compared with prevalence in the same age bracket in the NZ Health Survey.”

 

But younger age groups appear particularly vulnerable. This could be because lockdown coincided with fewer daily disruptions and economic impacts for different age groups.

When over 90 percent of the world’s students have been impacted by pandemic closures, it makes sense that young people seem to be suffering the most in initial psychological research.

New Zealand’s strictest lockdown only lasted for 33 days, with all schools and non-essential businesses shut down and people told to stay at home. That’s a very different scenario to what’s happening in the US and many other parts of the world, with lockdowns stopping and starting and dragging on for months. But while it’s true New Zealand ultimately eliminated the virus, at the time of the survey no one knew that would be the case.

One of the most worrisome findings has to do with women. Unfortunately, while reducing movement and keeping people in the home can save lives in a pandemic, it can also put lives at risk. Consistent with local media reports, the survey found domestic violence had risen during New Zealand’s lockdown.

 

Reported levels of physical assault, sexual assault, harassment, and intimidation in the home were between three and four times higher than normal, according to the survey, matching a similar rise in domestic abuse the world over as lockdown measures continue. 

The survey sounds like a lot of bad news when the world really doesn’t need any more, but there are some reasons to remain hopeful. Not only was New Zealand’s strict lockdown shortened by its success, the majority of respondents in the survey said they could see the positives of remaining in isolation, whether it be for themselves or for society. 

Even in parts of the world where lockdown likely won’t eliminate the virus, isolation measures have helped reduce its spread and save lives.

In New Zealand, for instance, working from home, spending more time with family, and living in a quieter environment reportedly gave people the opportunity to pause, reflect and consider their priorities, according to the survey.

Obviously, there’s only so long you can do this before the novelty starts to wear off, and it’ll be interesting to note how mental health is impacted by longer lockdowns in other parts of the world. 

Research has only just started, but a recent survey in the United States found a modest negative impact across the board in the early months of the pandemic, with younger adults and those with pre-existing health conditions reporting more psychological distress.

But positively, in this study participants generally felt better at the end of the research than they had at the beginning, which suggests lockdown may take some getting used to. 

It might even be helping us cope with the stress of the pandemic. The same survey found hand-washing, social distancing, and masking were associated with better mental health.

In some ways, it’s easier to blame all our frustrations on the lockdown instead of the virus itself, but in reality, it’s hard to say how the world would be faring mentally if we weren’t taking any public health measures during a pandemic.

“It is clear that the consequences of the pandemic will be pervasive and prolonged,” says Every-Palmer.

“Governments should make providing mental health support a similar priority to other health measures, such as contact tracing, provision of personal protective equipment, and procurement of ventilators,” she adds.

The study was published in PLOS One.

 



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Ancient Lake Discovered Under Greenland May Be Millions of Years Old, Scientists Say

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The remains of a giant, ancient lake have been discovered under Greenland, buried deep below the ice sheet in the northwest of the country and estimated to be hundreds of thousands of years old, if not millions, scientists say.

 

The huge ‘fossil lake bed’ is a phenomenon the likes of which scientists haven’t seen before in this part of the world, even though we know the colossal Greenland Ice Sheet (the world’s second largest, after Antarctica’s) remains full of mysteries hidden under its frozen lid while shedding mass at an alarming pace.

Last year, scientists reported the discovery of over 50 subglacial lakes beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet: bodies of thawed liquid water trapped between bedrock and the ice sheet overhead.

The new find is of a different nature: an ancient lake basin, long dry and now full of eons of sedimentary infill – loose rock measuring up to 1.2 kilometres (three-quarters of a mile) thick – and then covered by another 1.8 kilometres of ice.

010 greenland lake 1
(Columbia University, adapted from Paxman et al., EPSL, 2020)

Above: The lake basin (red outline), fed by ancient streams (blue).

When the lake formed long ago, however, the region would have been free of ice, researchers say, and the basin would have supported a monumental lake with a sprawling surface area of approximately 7,100 square kilometres (2,741 square miles).

 

That’s about the same size as the combined area of US states Delaware and Rhode Island, and this massive lake would have held around 580 cubic kilometres (139 cubic miles) of water, being fed by a network of at least 18 ancient streams that once existed to the north of the lake bed, flowing into it along a sloping escarpment.

While there’s no way of knowing right now just how ancient this lake is (or if it filled and drained numerous times), we might be able to find out if we could analyse the loose rock material now inside the basin: a giant time capsule of preserved sediment that could give us some clues about the environment of Greenland roughly forever ago.

“This could be an important repository of information, in a landscape that right now is totally concealed and inaccessible,” says lead researcher and glacial geophysicist Guy Paxman from Columbia University.

“If we could get at those sediments, they could tell us when the ice was present or absent.”

The giant lake bed – dubbed ‘Camp Century Basin’, in reference to a nearby historic military research base – was identified via observations from NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission, an airborne survey of the world’s polar regions.

 

During flights over the Greenland Ice Sheet, the team mapped the subglacial geomorphology under the ice using a range of instruments measuring radar, gravity and magnetic data. The readings revealed the outline of the giant loose mass of sedimentary infill, composed of less dense and less magnetic material than the harder rock surrounding the mass.

It’s possible, the team thinks, that the lake formed in warmer times as a result of bedrock displacement due to a fault line underneath, which is now dormant. Alternatively, glacial erosions might have carved the shape of the basin over time.

In either case, the researchers believe the ancient basin could hold an important sedimentary record, and if we can somehow drill down deep enough to extract and analyse it, it may indicate when the region was ice-free or ice-covered, reveal constraints of the extent of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and offer insights into past climate and environmental conditions in the region.

Whatever secrets those deeply buried rocks can tell us about polar climate change in the ancient past could be vital information for interpreting what’s happening in the world right now.

“We’re working to try and understand how the Greenland ice sheet has behaved in the past,” says Paxman. “It’s important if we want to understand how it will behave in future decades.”

The findings are reported in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

 



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Here’s a Timeline on How The COVID-19 Vaccine Might Reach People, if All Goes Well

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Drugmaker Pfizer said on Monday that its coronavirus vaccine had succeeded in the final stage of clinical trials, and is more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.

As Business Insider’s Andrew Dunn reported, developing a vaccine for a brand-new virus in less than a year is something that has never been achieved.

 

But announcing a vaccine and having large numbers of people receive it are two different things.

Here is Business Insider’s summary of what needs to happen next, and how long it might take:

  • Pfizer wants more data on the vaccine’s safety before moving ahead. It says the data will be available the week of November 16.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration then needs to decide whether to give emergency approval. It is unclear how long this might take, but the agency has said it wants to move fast. (Another caveat: The authorization at first may only be for the most at-risk groups like the elderly and healthcare workers.)
  • Pfizer said some doses can be delivered this year – but only 50 million for the whole world.
  • Each dose takes two shots, so the 50 million doses are only good for 25 million people. Patients also have to wait three weeks between their first and second shots.
  • 2021 is when the bulk of doses will arrive – up to 1.3 billion. This is when people who aren’t considered high risk might start to get it.
  • The vaccine has to be moved at ultra-cold temperatures – as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 70 degrees Celsius – which could make it hard to get to some places quickly.
  • Other logistical issues – like a shortage of glass vials – could stand in the way of a smooth vaccine rollout.

A number of countries have already put in orders for millions of doses of the vaccine, in the hopes that it will work to protect their populations, including the US, the UK, Canada, Japan, and countries across the European Union.

Other companies around the world are also working on producing coronavirus vaccines, with results expected soon.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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A Promising COVID-19 Vaccine Was Just Found 90% Effective in Phase 3 Trial

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A vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech was 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infections in ongoing Phase 3 trials, the companies announced Monday. 

Protection in patients was achieved seven days after the second of two doses, and 28 days after the first, according to preliminary findings. 

 

“The first set of results from our Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial provides the initial evidence of our vaccine’s ability to prevent COVID-19,” Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement.

“We look forward to sharing additional efficacy and safety data generated from thousands of participants in the coming weeks.

“We are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most,” Bourla added.

Across much of the globe, COVID-19 infections rates are soaring to record highs, with hospital intensive care units filling up and death tolls mounting as well. 

Based on supply projections, the companies said they expect to supply up to 50 million vaccine doses globally in 2020, and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

© Agence France-Presse

 



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