Volcano and NASA deliver blows to climate monitoring
Efforts to monitor global greenhouse gas emissions suffered two setbacks last week—one by chance, one by choice. In Hawaii, the first eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano since 1984 has cut off road access and power to a famed summit lab that has monitored atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels since 1958. Although lava flows have so far spared the lab, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), measurements are unlikely to resume for several months. That means tracking data will have to be sustained by other NOAA-run stations around the world. NASA, meanwhile, canceled development of its troubled GeoCarb mission, designed to track CO2 levels from geostationary orbit. The mission’s price tag had ballooned from $171 million to more than $600 million since 2016. NASA said new technology, including a hyperspectral instrument mounted on the International Space Station this year, has created alternatives to GeoCarb and it will begin work later this decade on a new greenhouse gas monitoring satellite.
Antiparasite pill impresses
A new drug that can treat human African trypanosomiasis—commonly known as sleeping sickness—with just one dose has shown promise in a clinical trial in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea. The rare disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma brucei gambiense, which is transmitted by the tsetse fly. Left untreated, it is deadly. Until a few years ago, treatment required hospitalization and a series of injected drugs—difficult to administer in the remote regions where the disease occurs. In 2019, African nations began using a treatment that required 10 daily pills. However, the new drug, called acoziborole, could be even simpler. In a trial in 208 patients, the one-dose pill cured 95% of the people treated, even if they were suffering from late-stage disease. Researchers are now conducting a placebo-controlled trial with 900 participants to collect more safety data.
Avian flu strikes South America
Migratory birds in South America are now spreading the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu virus that has already led to the deaths of record numbers of poultry and wild birds in Europe and North America. Last week, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela declared agricultural emergencies and instructed farmers to slaughter poultry at infected farms. In Colombia, H5N1 was found last month in a backyard flock. Galápagos National Park is monitoring wild birds for infections. In Peru, more than 10,000 pelicans have died of the extremely contagious virus. Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry in Mexico—where commercial farms have slaughtered nearly 4 million birds since October—announced more than 41 million doses of poultry vaccine have been delivered to farmers in high-risk regions.
A shortcut for particle physics
For decades, theoretical particle physicists have struggled with vexing calculus problems called Feynman integrals, which are central to nearly every calculation of how subatomic particles interact. Now, theorists in China have found a general numerical method to solve the integrals much more quickly. The approach transforms them into differential equations, which can be solved easily by a computer—although the method depends on a key new insight and lots and lots of linear algebra. Published last week in Physical Review Letters, the method should be widely useful, including in making predictions to be tested at the world’s biggest atom smasher, Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. A software package deploying the method is already getting heavy use, developers say.
Huge telescope to get underway
Construction will soon begin on the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array Observatory. Officials at the twin sites in South Africa and Western Australia announced contracts to install foundations, power, and fiber connections for the 131,072 Christmas tree–shaped antennas that will detect low frequencies and the 133 dishes to monitor higher frequencies. The dishes will be added to the existing 64 dishes of South Africa’s MeerKAT array in a configuration extending across hundreds of square kilometers. The €2 billion facility, to be completed by the end of the decade, will probe the universe’s first stars and galaxies, study cosmic magnetism and gravity, and listen for alien civilizations.
Daunting biodiversity talks
Delegates who arrived in Montreal this week for a key summit meeting on conserving global biodiversity face a heavy workload. Parties to the Convention for Biological Diversity must finalize a 261-page document that contains some 1800 words and phrases in brackets because negotiators have yet to reach agreement on pollution control targets, agricultural reforms, and other issues. The meeting is scheduled to end on 19 December.
Meet a digital Blue Marble
Fifty years ago this week, astronauts aboard Apollo 17, NASA’s last crewed mission to the Moon, took an iconic photograph that became known as the Blue Marble—the first color photo taken by a person that shows Earth’s full day side. This week, researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology re-created that image during a test run of a cutting-edge digital climate model. The model can simulate climatic phenomena, such as storms and ocean eddies, at 1-kilometer resolution, as much as 100 times sharper than typical global simulations. To duplicate the swirling winds of the Blue Marble—including a cyclone over the Indian Ocean—the researchers fed spotty weather records from 1972 into the supercomputer-powered software, which can handle time spans of just a few days. Researchers say the stunt highlights the growing sophistication of high-resolution climate models, which are expected to form the core of the European Union’s Destination Earth project, which aims to create a “digital twin” of Earth.
NASA honors UV researcher
NASA said last week it is renaming an atmospheric science probe known as GLIDE after the pioneering astronomer George Carruthers. The Carruthers Geocorona Observatory, set for launch in 2025, will study Earth’s upper atmosphere, where neutral hydrogen gas scatters far-ultraviolet (far-UV) radiation from the Sun. Carruthers, who died in 2020, pioneered UV astronomy in the 1960s, building cameras that were lofted above the UV-blocking atmosphere with sounding rockets to get brief glimpses of the sky. The instruments showed that molecular hydrogen exists in the voids between stars. Carruthers also built a camera that, in 1972, was operated on the Moon by Apollo 16 astronauts, taking the first UV images of Earth’s geocorona. He later snapped Halley’s Comet in UV and built a camera for the Space Shuttle. The decision appears to mark the first time NASA has named a space mission after a Black scientist. Carruthers also worked to promote and mentor young Black researchers and students interested in careers in science.
A Neolithic narrative?
A stone panel carved some 10,500 years ago by Neolithic hunter-gatherers in what is now southern Turkey is the region’s oldest known example of a story told in art, an archaeologist claimed this week. Discovered in 2021 in the village of Sayburç, the 3.7-meter-long panel portrays two human figures encountering wild animals. One, with six fingers, crouches beside a sharp-horned bull. The other, flanked by two snarling leopards, clutches an erect penis. Researchers caution it is very difficult to know whether the ancient artists intended to tell a story—and what it might be. But unlike other Neolithic carvings from the region, this panel shows characters interacting and appears to have “narrative integrity,” archaeologist Eylem Özdoğ an of Istanbul University wrote in Antiquity, including “a progressing scene [that] … suggests that one or more related events or stories are being told.”