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Research showing steeper increases in ocean heat is not exactly new. So what’s up with all those headlines?

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There’s been good evidence that the oceans were heating up faster than thought. Now, scientists have fitted the puzzle pieces together.

The trend in the amount of ocean heat is shown for the period 1993 to 2015. Yellow, orange and red tones show locations where ocean heat has increased. (Source: Cheng, Lijing & NCAR. Last modified 10 May 2017. "The Climate Data Guide: Ocean temperature analysis and heat content estimate from Institute of Atmospheric Physics." Retrieved from https://climatedataguide.ucar.edu/climate-data/ocean-temperature-analysis-and-heat-content-estimate-institute-atmospheric-physics.)

The trend in the amount of heat in the oceans is shown for the period 1993 to 2015. Yellow, orange and red tones show locations where ocean heat has increased. (Source: Lijing Cheng & NCAR. Retrieved from https://climatedataguide.ucar.edu/climate-data/ocean-temperature-analysis-and-heat-content-estimate-institute-atmospheric-physics.)

So this morning, as I’m drinking my coffee and perusing news headlines, I see this in the New York Times: “Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought, New Research Finds.”

The story was about a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science titled, “How fast are the oceans warming?”

This is a big deal, because human-caused global warming doesn’t affect just the land surface. In fact, more than 90 percent of global warming’s heat is absorbed in the oceans. That has helped prevent much steeper increases in temperature on land.

But all that heat going into the oceans isn’t really a benign phenomenon. By causing ocean waters to expand, it contributes to sea level rise. The heat also can make storms more destructive, and it’s putting enormous stress on ocean ecosystems — which we depend on heavily for food.

And in the long run, what goes into the oceans doesn’t all stay in the oceans. Heat eventually comes out of the water to contribute to warming atmospheric temperatures around the globe.

So knowing exactly how much heat is going in is very important. With that in mind, I checked out other stories about the new paper in Science, and I saw that many featured similar headlines as the N.Y. Times.

More about the scientific paper in a minute. But first, I have to say that I realized I had seen very similar headlines before. Just this past October, for example, I saw this in Scientific American: “The Oceans Are Heating Up Faster Than Expected.” According to the story, a “new study published yesterday in the journal Nature concluded that the global oceans may be absorbing up to 60 percent more heat since the 1990s than older estimates had found.”

And nearly two years ago, the Washington Post ran this headline: “The world’s oceans are storing up staggering amounts of heat — and it’s even more than we thought.”  That was based on a study published in the journal Science Advances. In a press release about it, study co-author Keven Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research was quoted as saying that “the planet is warming quite a lot more than we thought.”

Hmmm. Two years ago we already knew that the planet was warming quite a lot more than we thought. So what’s up with today’s headlines, which seem to suggest that we didn’t know this?

For quite awhile now, scientists have actually had good reasons to believe the oceans have been taking up more global warming heat than was estimated in a major report in 2014 from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And more recently, research has been confirming those suspicions.

If you read beyond the headline and down into that New York Times story — which actually is quite good — you’ll see that the new paper isn’t at all a research article presenting a major new advance. It’s actually an assessment based on previous original research of the state of knowledge about rising ocean heat content, or “OHC,” as scientists label it. And as the assessment concludes, “Multiple lines of evidence from four independent groups thus now suggest a stronger observed OHC warming.”

Based on a lot of the coverage I encountered today, you might easily conclude that the new assessment produced dramatic new findings. But the findings have actually been piling up for a few years — as have those headlines, some of them quite dramatic. Now, the authors of the new assessment have pulled multiple strands of previous research together to provide a clearer picture of what’s currently known.

That picture shows that the oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than what the U.N. report estimated. And things are getting increasingly worse. As Trenberth, one of the authors, put it in an email to me today, “There are clear signs of acceleration.”

The better estimates of how much global warming heat is going into the oceans is based in part on new ways of piecing together data from different sources. Since the early 2000s, accurate data have been provided by a modern network of floating ocean heat sensors, called the Argo network. But prior to that, information was collected by less accurate sensors called expendable bathythermographs.

Because of inaccuracies, the data from the older sensors contained biases. Thanks to recent research, scientists have found ways to deal with this issue, providing a better picture of just how much more heat the oceans have been sopping up compared to the past.

The picture has also been improved by new ways of dealing with another vexing issue: In the past, larger portions of the oceans went unmonitored than today. “The oceans are not well observed as we go back in time,” notes Trenberth.

In the past, scientists tried to deal with this using various strategies for filling the gaps. But these tended to produce overly conservative estimates. More recently, satellite observations and computer modeling have helped improve estimates of  what has been going on in largely unmonitored areas of the oceans.

And still other researchers have analyzed ocean factors that are influenced by ocean temperature to derive independent estimates of how the ocean’s store of heat  has changed over time.

Overall, the estimates derived by these studies are in line with what climate models have been saying. The models have tended to indicate more ocean warming than what had been observed, and that discrepancy had given fodder for critics of climate change science. But now, Trenberth and his fellow authors say that discrepancy is largely gone.

One of the sobering conclusions of the new assessment is the likely consequences of failing to get off the business-as-usual scenario of high emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Model projections — which we now know have been line with observations — show that the likely amount of ocean warming “would have major impacts on ocean ecosystems and sea level rise through thermal expansion,” the scientists write.

When you combine estimates of thermal expansion with projected sea level rise from melting glaciers and ice sheets, you come up with numbers that “portend very bad consequences for many coastal regions,” Trenberth told me in an email message.

My point in writing all of this today is to point out that if you pay too close attention to headlines, you might get the impression that science happens in discrete bursts of dramatic new research findings. In fact, most of the time, research progresses incrementally, with different groups of scientists probing at a particular issue independently and often in different ways. One study usually doesn’t provide definitive insight into a phenomenon. It takes multiple findings — and sometimes a group of scientists fitting those puzzle pieces together — to produce a clearer, convincing picture.

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Ecology

What if a jolt of electricity could make you happy?

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Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using joly of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using jolts of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

People all around the world (or at least where Netflix is available) have been exhausting themselves of late trying to “spark joy” in their lives. The urge comes from cleaning guru Marie Kondo, whose philosophy rests on the principle that we should rid our homes and minds of things that don’t inspire bursts of pleasure.

The message resonates, in part, because it ties positivity to the world of material things. Happiness is in our minds. So having a tangible mechanism for producing joy is understandably comforting.

But there’s a simpler way to spark joy, if we really want to get literal about it. Any emotion we feel has a physical cause inside our brains. Electrical charges pass from neuron to neuron, spreading ripples of thought and feeling. What we call happiness is just electricity. And now researchers say they’ve found a remarkably specific means of triggering the electrical fireworks that add up to happiness in our brains. By electrically stimulating a brain region known as the cingulum, scientists created spontaneous laughter and a sense of calm and joy in three different patients.

The find could lead to treatments for anxiety and depression, and it hints at insights into the very roots of our emotions themselves.

An artist's illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Credit: From Bijanki et al, J. Clin. Invest. (2019). Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

An artist’s illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

Unexpected Bliss

The young woman is clad in hospital garb, sitting upright in a bed. A white hospital cap mushrooms above her head, wires splay from its rear. She’s due for brain surgery in a few days to treat a difficult, disruptive kind of epilepsy. She’s been worried and anxious.

She breaks into a radiant smile, laughter flowing uninhibited.

“I’m kind of like smiling because I can’t help it,” she says. A bit later, “Sorry, that’s just a really good feeling. That’s awesome.”

Neuroscientists just administered a tiny jolt of electricity to wires threaded through her skull and into her brain. The wires are there to guide surgeons to the source of her seizures. But before the procedure, she’s agreed to play guinea pig to a team of Emory University researchers.

Patients like her offer an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to test the workings of various brain regions with unparalleled specificity. By delivering targeted bursts of electricity through the electrodes, they can watch what happens when specific neural circuits are activated.

The team was sending small bursts of electricity to her cingulum, a horseshoe of brain matter that links to regions associated with emotion, self-assessment, social interaction and motivation, among other things. It’s also known to regulate anxiety and depression.

This kind of research, though hardly common, is not new. The patient’s reaction is.

“It was really exciting,” says Kelly Bijanki, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies behavioral neuromodulation. She was one of the scientists working with the young woman, whose name was not given for privacy reasons, that day. She says the kind of spontaneous joy she saw was unprecedented.

Experiments with brain stimulation have elicited laughter and smiles before. But those responses seemed mechanical. Bijanki says the patients usually described it as a purely motor response. “Their body has laughed, but there’s no content to it.”

This case was different. There was real warmth behind the laughter; true happiness in her voice. At one point, the patient reported she was “so happy she could cry,” the researchers write in their paper.

“The way she was laughing was really infectious,” Bijanki says. “The whole room felt different: she was laughing, she was having a good time, and not afraid. Just that social, emotional contagion took over.”

Further tests confirmed the response. They conducted sham trials, telling the patient that they were providing stimulation when they weren’t. She didn’t react. They tested various levels of stimulation and saw that the more electricity they delivered, the stronger the joyous reaction was. The pattern remained the same: An initial burst of exultation faded into a state of happy relaxation after several seconds.

The researchers found no drawbacks to the treatment, either, they report in a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Her language skills and memory remained perfectly intact, and they saw no ill aftereffects of the stimulation.

In a screengrab from the scientists' experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit:)

In a screengrab from the scientists’ experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit: Bijanki et al, Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Put to the Test

The woman’s impending surgery would require her to remain awake while surgeons probed inside her skull. Their goal was to cut out the tissue responsible for her epilepsy, but it’s a game of millimeters. Doctors must remove enough to ensure that seizures don’t recur, but without causing permanent harm. The patient’s seizures appeared to emanate from a region near to language processing centers. Her job was to stay awake while surgeons worked, reading and talking to ensure they wouldn’t excise anything important.

The brain stimulation turned out to work so well that doctors were able to cut out completely the drugs used to manage anxiety during this type of brain surgery. Those medications can make patients sleepy and unresponsive, so the anesthesiologist decided to stop them midway through. The young woman, her skull opened to surgical tools, breezed through.

“During the surgery … she was telling me jokes about her dad, where prior to turning on the stimulation she had been crying and hyperventilating and right on the edge of panic,” Bijanki says.

To confirm their findings, the researchers performed the same tests with two more epilepsy patients with electrodes similarly implanted in their skulls. They got the same results. Jabs of electricity literally sparking joy inside their heads.

Putting Happiness to Work

It’s too simplistic to say the researchers have stumbled upon the place where joy hides within us. The brain is complex, and emotions well up from more than just a single place. Multiple brain regions are involved, and each contributes a facet to the emotion that we come to know as happiness.

In fact, researchers have found joy in another place in the brain as well. Sameer Sheth, a neurosurgeon at the Baylor College of Medicine, says that he’s had patients report feelings of euphoria during the course of his own work with brain stimulation as well. He was working with the ventral striatum, a region separate from the cingulum, though the two are tightly connected.

Stimulation to the ventral striatum has also produced the same sort of laughter and mood elevation that Bijanki saw, Sheth says.

But just because emotions are neurologically complex doesn’t mean there’s no value to understanding their origins.

“The more we understand this circuitry, the more we can fine tune how to harness that capability within an individual and the better we’ll be able to treat patients with mood disorders,” Sheth says.

Bijanki sees a range of applications for brain stimulation aimed at specific targets, beginning with the kind of surgeries the young epileptic was undergoing. By precluding the use of sedatives, the find might give brain surgeons new options when performing the kind of procedures the young woman went through. Allowing patients to give more feedback could make brain surgeries more targeted. It might also expand the scope of neurosurgery.

“The definition of what is an inoperable tumor is in some circumstances related to what is the surgeon reasonably comfortable with removing that isn’t going to ruin the patients life,” Bijanki says. “If the surgeon could know that in real time, then the surgery could proceed a little bit differently.”

More broadly, it could also find use as a treatment for mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Bijanki imagines electrodes powered by a pacemaker battery delivering continuous, low-grade stimulation to patients with depressive disorders.

In the future, we may not even need wires to spark such emotions. Scientists are developing means of activating brain regions with pulses of light, or with ultrasound. Flashes and vibrations could one day deliver ease to the afflicted.

There are drugs that accomplish similar things today, of course, but those often have side effects, and the treatment isn’t always as direct. Brain stimulation could offer a better path.

Banish the Sadness

Bijanki was also struck by an odd side-effect of the stimulation. Though patients had no trouble recalling sad memories during treatment, the recollections were wholly powerless to make them feel unhappy.

“I remember my dog dying, and I remember that it was a sad memory, but I don’t feel sad about it right now,” the young woman said, as reported by the researchers in their paper. Another patient concurred, unable to recollect a tragic memory without smiling. The effect is slightly jarring, but it could provide a shield of sorts to those overcoming trauma.

Those suffering from PTSD often go through what’s called exposure therapy, where they are asked to repeatedly sift through memories of a traumatic event. The goal is to drain those memories of their fearsome power over time, but it is difficult, frightening work.

Paired with temporary brain stimulation that elides sadness, Bijanki thinks PTSD patients might be far better equipped to tread through painful memories.

Finding Balance

Ultimately, however, the goal of therapies involving brain stimulation isn’t to wipe out negative emotions.

Anger, sadness and fear are not without their merits, and banishing them could have unintended consequences. Sadness sits at the other end of the spectrum from happiness, for example. Taking away any of our emotions would be removing an aspect of our humanity. What’s more, we have emotions for a reason.

“Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us,” Bijanki says.

That’s not the goal here, of course, though discussions about the ethical use of such technologies in the future is certainly warranted. Bijanki says that we’d need to be careful about applying things like brain stimulation that could be abused.

But, she’s not very worried about electrodes and electric shocks becoming the next designer drug. It’s just too technically demanding, she says. And the potential benefits for those with depression and other conditions are great.

Sometimes the bad can outweigh the good. In those cases, sparking a little joy might be what we need.

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NASA Picks Science Experiments to Send to the Moon This Year

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Just Made its Second Trip to Space

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SpaceShipTwo under rocket power

SpaceShipTwo is carried into the air on the back of a plane, but then takes off into space under its own power. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew in space for the second time, taking off from Mojave, California after days of weather delay. SpaceShipTwo took off at 8:07 a.m. PST carrying two pilots, a crewmember, and a nearly full weight of science projects from NASA.

Unlike most spaceflights that fire rockets from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried on the belly of a plane named WhiteKnightTwo before being released to propel itself into the upper atmosphere. After being carried 45,000 feet into the air, SpaceShipTwo successfully fired its rocket engine and reached suborbital space at approximately 8:55 a.m. PST. It coasted there for only a few minutes before heading back toward the ground, where it landed much like any other plane, roughly an hour after takeoff. Like all of SpaceShipTwo’s planned flights, this one was suborbital, meaning it does not reach orbit, and attains weightlessness for only a few minutes during its trip.

SpaceShipTwo made its maiden space voyage in December 2018, and today was its fifth powered flight in total. Unlike other private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic has made their main goal ferrying private citizens into space, and have been taking reservations for years.

The third crewmember today was Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and cabin evaluation lead. Her job today was to see how SpaceShipTwo feels from the cabin. Eventually, Virgin Galactic hopes to seat six passengers in place of the science payloads – or alongside them.

The spacecraft today also carried research projects from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which pairs research institutions with private companies who can fly their projects into space. The combined weight of the payloads put SpaceShipTwo at close to, but just under, the requirements for the commercial launch weight that NASA has specified. One of Virgin Galactic’s goals during this flight was testing how the vehicle flies with a greater weight distribution. Details will likely come later, but the flight was successful, which bodes well for the craft’s future in ferrying cargo as well as passengers.

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