Climate change intensified deadly storms in Africa in early 2022

Climate change amped up the rains that pounded southeastern Africa and killed hundreds of people during two powerful storms in early 2022.

But a dearth of regional data made it difficult to pinpoint just how large of a role climate change played, scientists said April 11 at a news conference.

The findings were described in a study, published online April 11, by a consortium of climate scientists and disaster experts called the World Weather Attribution network.

A series of tropical storms and heavy rain events battered southeast Africa in quick succession from January through March. For this study, the researchers focused on two events: Tropical Storm Ana, which led to flooding in northern Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique in January and killed at least 70 people; and Cyclone Batsirai, which inundated southern Madagascar in February and caused hundreds more deaths.
To search for the fingerprints of climate change, the team first selected a three-day period of heavy rain for each storm. Then the researchers tried to amass observational data from the region to reconstruct historical daily rainfall records from 1981 to 2022.

Only four weather stations, all in Mozambique, had consistent, high-quality data spanning those decades. But, using the data on hand, the team was able to construct simulations for the region that represented climate with and without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

The aggregate of those simulations revealed that climate change did play a role in intensifying the rains, Izidine Pinto, a climatologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said at the news event. But with insufficient historical rainfall data, the team “could not quantify the precise contribution” of climate change, Pinto said.

The study highlights how information on extreme weather events “is very much biased toward the Global North … [whereas] there are big gaps in the Global South,” said climate scientist Friedericke Otto of Imperial College London.

That’s an issue also highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC cites insufficient Southern Hemisphere data as a barrier to assessing the likelihood of increasing frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones beyond the North Atlantic Ocean (SN: 8/9/21).

These flowers lure pollinators to their deaths. There’s a new twist on how

Fake — and fatal — invitations to romance could be the newest bit of trickery uncovered among some jack-in-the-pulpit wildflowers.

The fatal part isn’t the surprise. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema) are the only plants known to kill their own insect pollinators as a matter of routine, says evolutionary ecologist Kenji Suetsugu of Kobe University in Japan. The new twist, if confirmed, would be using sexual deception to woo pollinators into the death traps.

Until now, biologists have found only three plant families with any species that pretend to offer sex to insects, Suetsugu says online March 28 in Plants, People, Planet. But unlike deceit in jack-in-the-pulpits, those other attractions aren’t fatal, just phony.

The orchid family has turned out multiple cheats, some so seductive that a male insect leaves wasted sperm as well as pollen on a flower. Yet he doesn’t get even a sip of nectar (SN: 3/5/08; SN: 3/27/08). Similar scams have turned up among daisies: A few dark bumps that a human in bad light might mistake for an insect can drive male flies to frenzies on the yellow, orange or red Gorteria petals. Enthusiasm wanes with repeated disappointment though (SN: 1/29/14). And among irises, a species dangles velvety purple petals where deluded insects wallow.
Two jack-in-the-pulpit species in Japan have now raised suspicions that their family, the arums, should be added to the list of sexual cheats. To visually oriented humans, the 180 or so Arisaema species look like just a merry reminder of evolution’s endless weirdness. Some kind of flappy canopy, sometimes striped, bends over a little cupped “pulpit” with a pinkie-tip stub or mushroom bulge of plant flesh peeping over the rim. Below the rim, swaths of flowers open in succession — male blooms overtaken by flowers with female parts — as the plant grows from slim young jack to big mama.

These oddball flowers depend mostly on pollinators that deserve a much bigger fan base: fungus gnats. These gnats, small as punctuation marks and hard to identify, are true flies. But don’t hold that against them. They don’t stalk picnic spreads or buzz-thump against windows. Pollinating gnats “are very frail,” Suetsugu says, and their wings make no noise a human can hear.

Nor can a human always smell what draws fungus gnats. It’s clear, though, that the varied canopied pulpits can have a strong happy hour lure for those cruising pollinators looking to meet the right gnat. This will go terribly wrong.

A tiny escape hatch deep in the trap stays open during the male phase of flowering, but that two-millimeter hole vanishes during the big mama stage. A gnat can’t overcome the slippery, flaking wax of the plant’s inner wall to climb out. So any gnat tricked twice is doomed.

Biologists had assumed that jack-in-the-pulpits seeking fungus gnats were perfuming the air with mushroomy, nice-place-to-have-kids scents. Many kinds seem to do so, but homey smells don’t explain an odd observation by Suetsugu and his colleagues. Of the important pollinator species for two Japanese jack-in-the-pulpits (A. angustatum and A. peninsulae), almost all the specks found in the traps were males.
An odor lure targeting males might mimic a come-hither scent of female gnats, the researchers propose. That’s outright fraud. Even if the hopeful males find a mate in the waxy green dungeon, they and their offspring would starve. They’re stuck in a plant with no fungus to eat. Whatever that ruinous scent is, a human nose can barely detect it, Suetsugu reports.

The notion that biologists have so far overlooked a scent important to other animals seems “more than possible” to Kelsey J.R.P. Byers of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. Byers’ work overturned a common assumption that monkeyflowers (Mimulus) had no scent even though hawkmoths, flying at night and known to track odors, visit the flowers.

“We’re such visual creatures,” says Byers, who studies floral scents. We can laugh at how insects mistake some off-color blob of plant tissue for a fabulous female, but we’re missing the odors. Fungus gnats, however, even look like the citizens of a smellier world, with giant guy-style antennae “like an ostrich plume on a hat.”

At least now, modern analytical lab techniques and equipment are opening up the vast sensory world of communication wafting around us. To see if even familiar plants like jack-in-the-pulpits are up to something odd, scientists need to identify the lure itself. Then maybe we’ll understand the irresistible valentine scent of a female fungus gnat.

Glowing spider fossils may exist thanks to tiny algae’s goo 

The secret ingredient for fossil preservation at a famous French site wouldn’t be found in a Julia Child cookbook. It was a sticky goo made by microalgae, researchers suggest.

An analysis of roughly 22-million-year-old spider fossils from a fossil-rich rock formation in Aix-en-Provence, France, reveals that the arachnids’ bodies were coated with a tarry black substance. That substance, a kind of biopolymer, was probably secreted by tiny algae called diatoms that lived in the lake or lagoon waters at the ancient site, scientists report April 21 in Communications Earth & Environment.

The biopolymer didn’t just coat the spiders’ bodies — it pickled them. By chemically reacting with the spiders’ carbon-rich exoskeletons, the goo helped preserve the bodies from decomposition, allowing them to more easily become fossils, the team hypothesizes.
A clue that this coating might play a role in fossilization came when the researchers, on a whim, placed a spider fossil under a fluorescence microscope. To their surprise, the substance glowed a bright yellow-orange. “It was amazing!” says geologist Alison Olcott of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The fluorescent imaging painted a bright, colorful palette onto what was otherwise a fairly faint spider fossil, Olcott says. In the original, she could barely tell the spider apart from the background rock. But under fluorescence, she says, the spider fossil glowed in one color, the background in another and the biopolymer in a third.

That discovery — along with an abrupt halt in early 2020 to any additional fossil-collecting plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic — swiftly shifted the focus of the team’s work. “Had it been normal times, this would have been a side note in a taxonomy study” classifying ancient spiders, Olcott says. Instead, “I really had to explore what I had,” she adds. “It was me and these images.”

The researchers next sought to identify the chemical makeup of the mysterious substance. The orange-yellow glow, the team found, comes from abundant carbon and sulfur in the coating. “That got me thinking about sulfurization,” Olcott says.
Sulfurization is the reaction of organic carbon with sulfur, which forms sturdy chemical bonds with the carbon, making it more resistant to degradation and breakdown — similar to how tire manufacturers harden rubber to make it more durable. The process requires a ready supply of sulfur available for bonding.

In modern times, such a supply comes from the sulfur-rich gooey secretions of diatoms, microalgae found floating in many waters around the world. When these secretions meet carbon-laden marine particles headed for the bottom of the ocean, this sulfurization process helps lock the carbon in place and possibly keep it buried in the seafloor.

Similarly, sulfurization might help to preserve delicate carbon-rich fossils, helping them to withstand the test of millions of years of geologic time, Olcott says. Scientists have often noted diatoms in the fossil-bearing rock formations of Aix-en-Provence, as well as at many similar fossil-rich sites, she adds. “Everyone’s seeing diatoms everywhere. Thinking about that and the chemistry, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. All the pieces are here to make this chemistry happen.’”

The arachnids’ preservation might have gone like this: A dead spider, floating in the water column, became covered in the diatoms’ sticky goo. The goo chemically reacted with the spider’s chitin exoskeleton, more or less pickling it and keeping the exoskeleton largely intact and ready for fossilization.

That scenario “makes sense based on what we know about organic sulfur cycling in modern environments so far,” says Morgan Raven, an organic geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Scientists still have a lot to learn about the conditions that allow materials like chitin to sulfurize, Raven says. “But this study highlights why that matters.”

For example, if sulfurization selectively helps preserve some types of organic matter — such as soft-bodied fossils — that “could be a crucial filter on our fossil record, influencing what we do and don’t know about plant and animal evolution,” she adds.

This process of diatom-assisted sulfurization may have been at work in other fossil-rich sites during the Cenozoic Era, Olcott says. That span of time began 66 million years ago, after an asteroid ended the Age of Dinosaurs, and continues to the present day. Before that era, diatoms were not widespread. That didn’t happen until silica-bearing grasses sprouted around the world during the Cenozoic, offering a ready source of silica for the tiny creatures to build their delicate bodies (SN: 5/1/19).

It’s unknown if other biopolymer-producing algae might have helped fossilize soft-bodied creatures from even earlier, such as during the flourishing of Cambrian Period life-forms beginning around 541 million years ago, Olcott says (SN: 4/24/19). “But it would be really interesting to expand this further out.”

The Large Hadron Collider has restarted with upgraded proton-smashing potential

After a hiatus of more than three years, the Large Hadron Collider is back.

Scientists shut down the particle accelerator in 2018 to allow for upgrades (SN: 12/3/18). On April 22, protons once again careened around the 27-kilometer-long ring of the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, located at the particle physics laboratory CERN in Geneva.

The LHC is coming out of hibernation gradually. Researchers started the accelerator’s proton beams out at relatively low energy, but will ramp up to slam protons together at a planned record-high energy of 13.6 trillion electron volts. Previously, LHC collisions reached 13 trillion electron volts. Likewise, the beams are starting out wimpy, with relatively few protons, but will build to higher intensity. And when fully up to speed, the upgraded accelerator will pump out proton collisions more quickly than in previous runs. Experiments at the LHC will start taking data this summer.

Physicists will use this data to further characterize the Higgs boson, the particle discovered at the LHC in 2012 that reveals the source of mass for elementary particles (SN: 7/4/12). And researchers will be keeping an eye out for new particles or anything else that clashes with the standard model, the theory of the known particles and their interactions. For example, researchers will continue the hunt for dark matter, a mysterious substance that so far can be observed only by its gravitational effects on the cosmos (SN: 10/25/16).

After several years of operations, the LHC will shut down again to prepare the High-Luminosity LHC (SN: 6/15/18), which will further boost the rate of proton collisions and allow for even more detailed studies of the fundamental constituents of matter.

Missing COVID-19 data leave us in the dark about the current surge

As science journalists, we’re accustomed to data. We sift through it and talk it over with experts. We pay close attention to the stories that numbers can tell. But at this point in the pandemic, many of us are having a hard time finding the story. That’s because the numbers aren’t there.

Data on coronavirus infections in the United States have become less reliable, many experts say. Fewer people are getting tested, local governments have stopped reporting results, and home test results rarely make it into official counts (SN: 4/22/22).
To be sure, there are still official numbers to be found. They don’t look great. Hospitalizations are low compared with earlier in the pandemic, but they’re rising again, and the case counts that do exist are ticking up, too. After dipping in March, the tally in the United States is back up to more than 100,000 known cases a day. A third of Americans now live in places with “medium to high” levels of virus spread.

With these not-so-great numbers in mind, it’s not a stretch to assume that the missing data probably wouldn’t tell us a cheery story either. We are almost certainly undercounting cases in the United States. And we’re not alone. Amid worldwide declines in testing and sequencing to see where coronavirus is spreading and how it’s changing, “we are blinding ourselves to the evolution of the virus,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said May 22.

We’ve never had a perfect count of COVID-19 cases, of course. Early on in the pandemic, before testing ramped up in some places, scientists found clues about COVID-19’s transmission in odd places. Wastewater testing, for instance, spotted signs of the virus getting flushed down the toilet (SN: 5/28/20). That dirty water continues to be an indirect, but helpful, measure of viral loads in a community. Here in Oregon, where I live, some wastewater spots again show increases in coronavirus, suggesting a surge.

Even more indirect measurements can give us additional hints. Early on in the pandemic, “smart” thermometers connected to the internet generated fever data used to map risk of getting sick by region. Internet searches for words and phrases, such as “chills,” “fever” and “I can’t smell,” also pointed to virus hot spots.

My favorite digital sign of illness comes from online reviews of Yankee Candles. One-star reviews (“No scent.” “Embarrassed as this was a gift.”) tracked neatly with a rise in COVID-19 cases in 2020 and the subsequent loss of smell. Just last week, more one-star reviews showed up, notes Twitter user @drewtoothpaste, who compiled the latest complaints. “No smell.” “Absolutely no scent.” “Very disappointing!!!”
These one-star reviews are not airtight evidence of COVID-19 rates — not by any stretch. But they add to the broader picture that we are not yet done with this pandemic, as much as we would all love to be. We are still experiencing disruptions to our lives, illness, suffering and sadness. Very disappointing indeed.

To better understand this particular moment in the pandemic, I talked with data expert Beth Blauer of Johns Hopkins University. She’s been tracking metrics of the pandemic since it started. In the earliest days, she helped build databases, including a widely used COVID-19 tracker, that ultimately became the Coronavirus Resource Center at Hopkins. Those tools get data out to other scientists, health experts, government leaders, journalists and people who want to keep up with the latest numbers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SN: How solid is the testing data right now in the United States?

Blauer: The testing data in this country is crumbling…. We’re barely getting data out of the application-based resources that come with home tests. And the home tests are running 10 bucks apiece. That’s cost prohibitive for people who live below the poverty line. Even middle-income people are not spending $20 for a pack of two. [Free tests are available in the United States, but it’s not known how many of those tests are reaching people who need them.]

We are flying blind. Completely. We are in a surge right now, but we don’t even appreciate fully how big of a surge this is.

SN: Any guesses?

Blauer: I have no idea. Anecdotally, I’m sure you and I both know a ton of people who have COVID-19 or who just got over it. All the mitigation strategies are not being spun up to meet the rising demand that a surge, like we’re in right now, calls for, which means we’re just going to be getting a lot more COVID-19. People are going on vacations, they’re traveling, graduations, all of these things are just going forward. So yes, we’re seeing some increase in hospitalization, but I don’t think we have any idea how much disease there is in the community.
SN: I’ve had trouble gauging my risk from COVID-19 in everyday life. Is that typical?

Blauer: It’s a mess. I think a lot of people are sensing that. And it dilutes our capacity to have faith in science and in all the things that have happened over time. It is confusing. It’s like, “Oh, we have just as much COVID, but we can go to parties? And school is in?” Everything all of a sudden gets called into question.

[That uncertainty highlights a] need to really think critically about our public health infrastructure in this country.

SN: How should we be living with this virus right now?

Blauer: We all acknowledge that we need social anchoring in our communities. We need to see people. We can’t hide away in our houses forever. But that means we have to think about what it means to live with a pathogen like COVID-19 out there. And we’re not giving ourselves all the best tools to be able to do that.

I work in a building where right down the hall, people are getting chemotherapy. I feel a responsibility to the community that I’m not giving them a disease that could potentially kill them. That’s not happening in a lot of places. For me, it’s sad. It’s like a loss of collective empathy, and I don’t think we should not talk about that.

I think I would feel the very same way even if I wasn’t leading this effort here at Hopkins. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I feel the toll of a million Americans who have died. I’ve experienced loss in my life. I do have a lot of empathy. But I don’t think I’m overdoing it.

SN: But you’re not saying we should all hunker down and stay away from people.

Blauer: No. We’re done with that. But we have to start integrating and really putting into place these habits [masking, testing and adjusting behavior when needed]. Because I think it’s the only way we get out of this.