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The U.S. climate became afflicted by split personality disorder in 2018

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Meanwhile, the Earth as a whole continues to ride the up-escalator of human-caused global warming

2018: climatic split personality

2018 was the fourth warmest year on record globally, part of a decades-long warming trend. (Source: NASA Goddard Media Studios)

Two U.S. agencies have reported on how Earth’s climate fared in 2018. For the most part, the news wasn’t all that surprising: The long-term trend of human-caused global warming showed no significant signs of relenting.

But I was surprised by one finding: The United States experienced something of a split climatic personality last year.

More about that in a minute. First, though, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced yesterday that Earth experienced its fourth warmest year in records dating back to the late 1880s.

“Across the globe it was extremely warm, with only a few places that were slightly below normal,” observed Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, during a phone briefing with reporters that I participated in. The planet continues to warm over the long term, and “it’s because of the greenhouse gases we’ve put into the atmosphere in the last hundred years.”

2018: climatic split personality

Yearly temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2018, with respect to the 1951-1980 mean, as recorded by NASA, NOAA, the Japan Meteorological Agency, the Berkeley Earth research group, and the Met Office Hadley Centre (UK). All five show peaks and valleys in sync with each other, along with rapid overall warming overall.
(Source: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)

Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring section at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, likened what’s happening to “riding up an escalator over time and bouncing up and down on that escalator.” The ride up is global warming, while the bouncing up and down are natural climatic variations caused by such phenomena as El Niño (which tends to cause warming) and La Niña (which cools things off).

As seen in the  animation above, five independent analyses agree on the details of that metaphorical escalator ride — a striking concurrence.

But I found the analysis of what happened climatically in the United States last year even more striking.

The nation experienced it’s 14th warmest year in a record stretching back 123 years. That puts 2018 in the top 10 percent of warm years nationally.

Noteworthy, for sure. But much more so was the pattern of U.S. climate anomalies in 2018.

U.S. climate in 2018: split personality

As seen in the map above, the Northern Plains and parts of the Upper Midwest were among those few places globally that were a little cooler than normal last year. But in stark contrast, much warmer than average conditions prevailed from the Rockies all the way west to the Pacific Ocean.

And when it came to precipitation, the dichotomy was even more dramatic:

U.S. climate in 2018: split personality

Overall, the United States experienced its third wettest year. You have to go all the way back to 1983 to find a wetter one.

But in the graphic above, check out the stark contrast between the United States east of the Rockies and west of the Rockies.

The eastern two thirds of the country were exceedingly wet in 2018 — and nine states actually experienced their very wettest year on record. According to NOAA’s Deke Arndt, climate change played a role, in this way: The warming has allowed the atmosphere to carry more water vapor, and thus the storms that hit the eastern part of the country dumped even more rainfall than they would have otherwise.

Meanwhile, the western third was mostly dry — and some parts of the region were really dry. As Arndt put it: “ There is an entrenched and very intense drought, frankly, in the Four Corners region.”

U.S. climate in 2018: split personality

Drought is not just about the amount of precipitation that falls from the sky. Other important factors contributing to drought include temperature and soil moisture.

Considering those and other factors, the situation in a broad swath of the southwestern United States was quite bleak in 2018. In the map above, all the areas colored in dark brown were considered in drought for every single week of the year.

This is a continuation of very dry conditions dating back to the beginning of the 2000s. This drought, and increasing demand for water, have caused water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River — to drop significantly. This has raised fears of coming water shortages in the Colorado River Basin, from which 40 million people in seven states draw water.

With this in mind, I asked both Arndt and Schmidt whether they thought the dry conditions were indicative of an emerging new normal for the region. Arndt was fairly cautious in his response: “In the late 1990s, we entered into a persistent period in which the extent, intensity and frequency of drought have increased. But I am not prepared to say that this is the new normal.”

Schmidt went further. He said that in the context of the paleo record, meaning the past 1,000 years or so, the recent dearth of precipitation may not be that unusual. “But the drying that we get in the soil bed from increasing temperatures — that has actually been a significant factor in the intensity of the drought and their impacts.”

In this way, human-caused climate change is contributing to ongoing drought in the region. And barring increases in precipitation — which climate models do not predict for the Southwest — drying will continue as temperatures warm further.



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Pumped Milk Gives Infants Different Bacteria Than Breastfeeding, Study Says

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baby feeding milk bottle

(Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Mother’s milk provides sustenance for babies. Now researchers find pumped breast milk exposes newborns to more disease-causing bacteria than milk directly from the breast. The discovery suggests breastfeeding practices could shift the makeup of microorganisms in breast milk and infants’ digestive systems.

“We were surprised that the method of feeding was the most consistent factor associated with milk microbiota composition,” said Meghan Azad, a medical geneticist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba in Canada, who led the new research.

Mighty Milk

Once considered sterile, researchers now know breast milk is full of bacteria. The microbes are thought to help set up infants’ digestive tracts with an ecosystem of microorganisms that will aid the growing human’s digestive and immune systems. Azad and her team were initially curious about this collection of bacteria in infants known as the infant gut microbiome. In an earlier study, they found breastfeeding affected babies’ gut bacteria the most. So, in the new research, the scientists probed the microbes in breast milk.

The researchers checked out the microbes in breast milk from nearly 400 nursing mothers and their three to four month old babies. The mommy-baby pairs are a part of a Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development birth cohort study known as the CHILD study, a long-term project looking to find the source of pediatric allergies. The researchers also looked at other elements — maternal age, smoking status and the microbes in babies mouths, to name a few — that could affect what bacteria are in breast milk.

Pumping Problem

The microbes in breast milk varied drastically between mothers, the researchers found, and both mom and baby mold the milk microbiome.

“Our results suggest that the infant’s oral bacteria are important in shaping the milk microbiota,” said Shirin Moossavi, a medical microbiology student in Azad’s lab, who authored the research.

But the biggest factor was whether babies received breast milk straight from the nipple or from a bottle. A family of bacteria that includes E. coli and salmonella were more abundant in pumped breast milk than direct breast milk, the researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.

“It is only in recent years that we have started to understand that there might be differences between direct nursing compared to feeding pumped milk,” Azad said.

“In the future, when we understand the mechanisms better, we might be able to provide recommendations about pump apparatus cleaning and milk storage to minimize the impact on the milk microbiota,” Moossavi added.

But no matter the delivery mode, “overall, breast milk is the best for the infant,” the researchers said.



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NASA Wants to Return to the Moon as Early as This Year

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NASA moon

NASA has big plans for returning to the moon, but private companies will do much of the work. (Credit: NASA)

In November, NASA tapped nine private spaceflight companies who will be allowed to bid on upcoming projects. Yesterday, they elaborated on what those projects would be during an industry forum. Starting as early as this year, NASA hopes to send commercial landers to the lunar surface as the first step toward returning to the moon, this time for good.

Long Lunar To-Do List

There’s a lot of work to be done before permanent or long-term lunar activities can begin. The first tasks will be to practice launching and landing on the moon, as well as answering questions about its surface. There’s plenty of technology NASA wants to see established on the ground before humans are sent back to the moon – and a lot of it is meant to stand in for future Mars settlement as well.

Some of that technology has to do with a recent buzzword among the space settlement community: in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. This means using materials and resources already available on the moon and, one day, Mars, rather than carting all our resources with us, as has been standard for space missions. This most commonly means using solar power for energy. On the moon, it will also mean extracting water, which can be used for drinking or to power rockets. Both the hydrogen and oxygen that make up water are powerful fuel materials.

So commercial lunar partners will work on how to mine and recycle resources on the moon and make them available for future mission use. They will test habitation for future crewed missions. They’ll prove that they can collect materials from the lunar surface and return them to space or Earth. And they’ll establish communication networks between robots on the moon’s surface, way stations in lunar orbit, and mission control on Earth.

All these commercial endeavors would also need to integrate with NASA’s planned Lunar Gateway. This would be a space station in orbit around the moon that would serve as Grand Central Station for robotic or crewed missions to the lunar surface, or even for deep space missions. NASA hopes to open the Gateway by 2026, with the first power and propulsion elements entering orbit in 2022.



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Climate Change Hearings Signal Congress Is Willing to Address the Issue Again

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climate change

(credit: Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)

Climate change is real. It’s happening now. And it presents significant problems for the U.S. across multiple facets of society, according to a panel of climate and policy experts that testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The testimonials were part of the House Science Committee’s first full hearing of the 116th Congress and one of only a handful in the last eight years to address climate change. But that’s about to change. In her opening remarks, House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said Wednesday’s hearing will be the first of multiple hearings on climate change in the near future.

“Climate change is not just an environmental challenge,” said Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, during his testimony. “It’s an economic challenge, an infrastructure challenge, a public health challenge and a national security challenge.”

Carbon Cuts

For the most part, House representatives were in agreement with the panel that climate change is real and harming not only the environment but the economy and Americans. During the nearly two and half hours of questions that followed the researchers’ testimonies, representatives asked the scientists to identify priorities and sought their suggestions for solutions.

“Human emissions of CO2 must be brought as close to zero as possible with any continued emissions of CO2 balanced by human removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Kopp, who suggested expanding forests and using new, but little-tested technologies as a start. “The faster we reduce emissions, the less severe the effects and the lower the risk of unwelcome surprises,” he added.

Cities, states and a number of companies are already taking action by adopting emission reduction targets, but Kopp says these efforts need to grow dramatically and rapidly to effectively manage climate risk.

But Joseph Majkut, a policy expert with the Niskanen Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., who also testified, acknowledged, “That’s a challenging thing to do.”

“To even get close, we’ll need significant innovation in low-carbon technology, finance and market design in order to be able to provide reliable, affordable and globally accessible low carbon energy,” Majkut said.

Majkut projected that to reach any temperature target, much less the 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming goal set by the IPCC, would require carbon capture and storage of fossil fuels as well as carbon removal technologies in conjunction with renewable energy and storage solutions. He then advocated for research into alternatives to reducing global emissions, such as geoengineering technologies that would offset greenhouse gas production.

The scientists’ recommendations align with many facets of the Green New Deal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) recently proposed. The legislation calls for a massive policy shift that bolsters the U.S. economy and cuts greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Like the solutions Majkut outlined for the House Science Committee, the Green New Deal lists expanding and upgrading renewable energy sources, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and increasing carbon storage as ways to achieve its goal.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) and others raised concerns about the cost of such an initiative, asking “If the Green New Deal were implemented immediately, wouldn’t it devastate our economy?” But, says Majkut, reducing CO2 associated with economic activity is “one of the cheapest elements” of the bill.

Adaptive Measures

The scientists testifying before the House also recommended prioritizing research into the ways society might adapt to climate change and called on federal support for studies of how climate change will affect communities, a research topic Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is already looking into.

Ebi, another scientist to testify at the hearing, investigates how climate change affects human health. Researchers have discovered Americans are already suffering and dying from climate change and the impacts will likely only get worse.

“Risk from vector-borne diseases such as malaria, Dengue fever and Lyme disease are projected to increase with warming from 1.5 to 2 C (2.7 to 3.6 F) including potential shifts in their geographic range to areas previously unexposed to these diseases,” Ebi said. “Further, our healthcare infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme events with, for example, many hospitals and healthcare clinics located in coastal regions subject to flooding.”

Yet, there are achievable ways to alleviate the projected risks and costs associated with climate change’s impacts on communities, Ebi said, such as “developing early notification response plans for extreme heat … and incorporating climate projections into emergency preparedness and disaster risk management initiatives.”

“These steps can protect health now and provide a basis for effective adaptation to our future climate,” she added.

And if the world does not slow the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, Americans’ health and the U.S. economy will suffer because of impacts associated with mortality and the ability of people to work outdoors, scientists say. More extreme weather events will also affect human health and the economy.

“We know that in 2018, the losses due to extreme weather were roughly $160 billion just to the U.S.,” said Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, during her testimony. “But what keeps me up at night is thinking about my own daughter and the world she will face if we do nothing.”



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