Monday, September 13, 2021

Crop-eating moths will flourish as climate warms

The top map shows the distribution of diamondback moths as of 2016. Overwintering regions are shown in red. The bottom map shows regions where the diamondback moth’s range has expanded in the past 50 years, based on a climate change model in which mean global temperatures will increase 2 degrees Celsius this century. Darker colors indicate a greater chance for overwinter survival.
(Image courtesy of V. Rudolf/Rice University)

Climate change in this century will allow one of the world’s costliest agricultural pests, the diamondback moth, to both thrive year-round and rapidly evolve resistance to pesticides in large parts of the United States, Europe and China where it previously died each winter, according to a study by U.S. and Chinese researchers.

The moth, Plutella xylostella, which is also known as the cabbage moth, already causes more than $4 billion in damage worldwide each year to broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, mustard, radishes, turnips, watercress, Brussels sprouts and other crops. It is also one the world’s most pesticide-resistant species, with a documented resistance to at least 97 insecticides.

In a first-of-its-kind study published in the open-access journal Nature Communications, researchers from Rice University and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences combined results from years of laboratory and field experiments, computer simulations of future climate warming scenarios and a meta-analysis of decades of prior moth research.

“It’s well-documented that climate change is shifting the distribution and ranges of species, but the challenge is trying to predict where species will go,” said study co-author Volker Rudolf, an ecologist, evolutionary biologist and professor of biosciences at Rice University.

Rudolf said the team, which was led by co-lead authors Chun-Sen Ma and Wei Zhang, began with laboratory experiments aimed at isolating a specific mechanism that could be used to accurately predict how the range of diamondback moths would evolve in response to climate change. Previous experiments had found the coldest temperature individual moths could survive, but it was also well-known the moths died out each winter in places where temperatures were considerably higher. Rudolf said the lab studies allowed the team to predict where the moths can “overwinter,” or survive year-round, based on the daily accumulated low temperatures below a critical threshold in winter, a metric they dubbed “low temperature degree days.”

“That variable alone predicts over 90% of mortality, which is pretty nuts,” Rudolf said. “You don’t normally get correlations that strong.”

That gave the researchers “a simple variable that was both mechanistically linked to the survival of the species and really easy to calculate from either past climate data or future-climate models,” he said.

Diamondback moth
(This work, “Plutella.xylostella.7383,” by of Olaf Leillinger
is used and provided under
CC BY SA 2.5 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The researchers found climate change over the past 50 years has increased the overwintering range of the diamondback moth by more than 925,000 square miles. They also showed each increase in mean global temperature of 1 degree Celsius will allow the moth’s overwintering range to expand by about 850,000 square miles. Current climate models predict mean global temperatures will increase by 2-6 degrees Celsius during the coming 100-150 years, the study said.

Rudolf said the overwintering data combined with a meta-analysis of decades of previous studies of diamondback moth pesticide resistance allowed the team to show how climate change could dramatically worsen the problem of evolved pesticide resistance in parts of the U.S., China, Japan and the Mediterranean that are currently “marginal” overwintering regions for the moth.

“We care about overwintering because if they survive winters and stay year-round that allows for rapid evolution of pesticide resistance,” Rudolf said.

Diamondback moths and many other crop pests like armyworms, planthoppers, leafrollers and some species of aphids overwinter in warm regions and migrate annually, causing significant damage to crops in regions where they cannot overwinter. Where these species cannot overwinter, they are slower to evolve pesticide resistance, Rudolf said.

“Because they always come from somewhere else to recolonize a particular site, the individuals are most likely coming from different ancestors every year,” he said. “So, you can have within-season selection for pesticide resistance, but selection across-seasons gets interrupted.”

The researchers’ global meta-analysis of pesticide resistance in diamondback moths illustrated the critical difference between these two types of evolutionary processes: Mean pesticide resistance was 158 times higher at overwintering sites compared to non-overwintering sites, the research showed.

The double whammy of an expanded year-round range and more rapid evolution of pesticide resistance could severely impede control efforts and allow diamondback moths to cause greater economic losses for farmers, the study found.

But the study’s authors said the research also presents an opportunity, both as a template for studying similar crop pests and as a guide to designing and coordinating more effective control efforts.

The findings could be used to “develop proactive pest management in a changing world, reduce costs of control efforts and assure food security while minimizing impacts on natural enemies and other aspects of the ecosystem,” they wrote in the study. “In practice, our results emphasize the importance of adjusting pest management strategies to adapt to differences in winter survival across regions and how this will change under future climate scenarios.”

Study co-authors include Yu Peng, Liang Zhu and Gang Ma of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, Fei Zhao and Kun Xing of both the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Shanxi Agricultural University in Shanxi, Xiang-Qian Chang of both the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Hubei Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Wuhan, and He-Ping Yang of the National Meteorological Information Centre in Beijing.

The research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31471764, 31620103914, 31501630), the National Key R&D Program of China (2018YFD0201400, 2019YFD1002100), the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Fundamental Research Fund (Y2017LM10) and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Innovation Program (CAAS-ZDRW202012).

Source/Credit: Rice University


Friday, September 10, 2021

Fat matters more than muscle for heart health, research finds


Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels
New research has found that changes in body fat impact early markers of heart health more than changes in body muscle, suggesting there are greater benefits to be expected from losing fat than from gaining muscle.

The observational study, led by researchers from the University of Bristol, was published in PLoS Medicine.

More than 3,200 young people in Bristol’s Children of the 90s birth cohort study were measured repeatedly for levels of body fat and lean mass using a body scanning device. These scans were performed four times across participants’ lives, when they were children, adolescents, and young adults (at ages 10, 13, 18 and 25 years). Handgrip strength was also tested when they were aged 12 and 25 years.

When the participants were 25 years old, blood samples were collected and a technique called “metabolomics” was used to measure over 200 detailed markers of metabolism including different types of harmful cholesterol, glucose, and inflammation, which together indicate one’s susceptibility to developing heart disease and other health conditions.

Dr Joshua Bell, senior research associate in epidemiology and lead author of the report, said: “We knew that fat gain is harmful for health, but we didn’t know whether gaining muscle could really improve health and help prevent heart disease. We wanted to put those benefits in context.”

The findings showed that gaining fat mass was strongly and consistently related to poorer metabolic health in young adulthood, as indicated, for example, by higher levels of harmful cholesterol. These effects were much larger (often about 5-times larger) than any beneficial effect of gaining muscle. Where there were benefits of gaining muscle, these were specific to gains that had occurred in adolescence – suggesting that this early stage of life is a key window for promoting muscle gain and reaping its benefits.

Dr Bell added: “Fat loss is difficult, but that does seem to be where the greatest health benefits lie. We need to double down on preventing fat gain and supporting people in losing fat and keeping it off.

“We absolutely still encourage exercise – there are many other health benefits and strength is a prize in itself. We may just need to temper expectations for what gaining muscle can really do for avoiding heart disease – fat gain is the real driver.”

The study also found that improving strength (based on handgrip) has slightly greater benefits for markers of heart health than gaining muscle itself, suggesting that the frequent use of muscle, rather than the bulking up of muscle, may matter more.

Professor Nic Timpson, the Principal Investigator of the Children of the 90s and one of the study’s authors, said: “This research provides greater clarity in the relative roles of fat and lean mass in the basis of cardio-metabolic disease. This is an important finding and clearly part of a complex picture of health that involves weight gain, but also the other indirect costs and benefits of different types of lifestyle. It is only through detailed, longitudinal, studies like Children of the 90s that these relationships can be uncovered. We extend our thanks to the participants of the Children of the 90s who make all of this work possible.”

Source/Credit: University of Bristol


Mapping project completed, helping to save world’s reefs

Ailinginae Atoll - Ailinginae Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Photo credit: Greg Asner
All of the world’s shallow coral reefs have been digitally mapped, thanks to a three-year project combining two million satellite images, enormous amounts of field data and University of Queensland-developed mapping techniques.

The Allen Coral Atlas project has officially launched its high-resolution maps of the world’s reefs which, together with the Atlas’s coral monitoring tool launched in May, will revolutionize reef management.

The project is an international research collaboration led by Arizona State University in partnership with UQ, Planet Ltd, National Geographic and Vulcan Inc.

UQ’s Remote Sensing Research Centre researcher Dr Chris Roelfsema said the digital atlas is a comprehensive and continually updated tool, perfect for scientists, policy makers and planners.

“To manage environmental assets like the world’s reefs, you need to know what’s happening at any given time,” Dr Roelfsema said.

“The Allen Coral Atlas provides maps that accurately describe the composition and extent of our reefs globally, and at a level of detail not seen before.

“These maps are connecting people with the data they need to save our reefs – it’s momentous.”

The Allen Coral Atlas, now available online, has been a global effort with UQ scientists playing the leading role in gathering verification data, developing and implementing the mapping approach for the world’s coral reefs.

“The verification and mapping approaches we’ve developed are based on 20 years of experience UQ has in combining reef knowledge, field data and earth observation processes to map and monitor coral reefs,” Dr Roelfsema said.

“This work combined 450 field data sets from global collaborators with machine learning and automated contextual-editing approaches, which helps us achieve the highest spatial and thematic resolution of coral reefs anyone has ever seen.”

The data is needed now more than ever, with models predicting 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs will be lost by 2050, because of warming, polluted and acidic oceans.

Professor Greg Asner, Director of Arizona State University's Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science and Managing Director of the Atlas project, said he was thrilled to announce the platform.

“It is a gratifying milestone after years of dedicated non-stop teamwork to bring this global map to fruition,” Dr Asner said.

“But the true value of the work will come when coral conservationists are able to better protect coral reefs based on the high-resolution maps and monitoring system.

“We must double down and use this tool as we work to save coral reefs from the impacts of our climate crisis and other threats.”

The Allen Coral Atlas is named for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, and founder of Vulcan Inc.

Source/Credit: University of Queensland


Silicon, Subatomic Particles and Possible ‘Fifth Force’


As neutrons pass through a crystal, they create two different standing waves – one along atomic planes and one between them. The interaction of these waves affects the path of the neutron, revealing aspects of the crystal structure.  Credit: NIST
Using a groundbreaking new technique at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an international collaboration led by NIST researchers has revealed previously unrecognized properties of technologically crucial silicon crystals and uncovered new information about an important subatomic particle and a long-theorized fifth force of nature.

By aiming subatomic particles known as neutrons at silicon crystals and monitoring the outcome with exquisite sensitivity, the NIST scientists were able to obtain three extraordinary results: the first measurement of a key neutron property in 20 years using a unique method; the highest-precision measurements of the effects of heat-related vibrations in a silicon crystal; and limits on the strength of a possible “fifth force” beyond standard physics theories.

The researchers report their findings in the journal Science.

In a regular crystal such as silicon, there are many parallel sheets of atoms, each of which forms a plane. Probing different planes with neutrons reveals different aspects of the crystal.  Credit: NIST
To obtain information about crystalline materials at the atomic scale, scientists typically aim a beam of
particles (such as X-rays, electrons or neutrons) at the crystal and detect the beam’s angles, intensities and patterns as it passes through or ricochets off planes in the crystal’s lattice-like atomic geometry.

That information is critically important for characterizing the electronic, mechanical and magnetic properties of microchip components and various novel nanomaterials for next-generation applications including quantum computing. A great deal is known already, but continued progress requires increasingly detailed knowledge.

“A vastly improved understanding of the crystal structure of silicon, the ‘universal’ substrate or foundation material on which everything is built, will be crucial in understanding the nature of components operating near the point at which the accuracy of measurements is limited by quantum effects,” said NIST senior project scientist Michael Huber.

Neutrons, Atoms and Angles

Like all quantum objects, neutrons have both point-like particle and wave properties. As a neutron travels through the crystal, it forms standing waves (like a plucked guitar string) both in between and on top of rows or sheets of atoms called Bragg planes. When waves from each of the two routes combine, or “interfere” in the parlance of physics, they create faint patterns called pendellösung oscillations that provide insights into the forces that neutrons experience inside the crystal.

“Imagine two identical guitars,” said Huber. “Pluck them the same way, and as the strings vibrate, drive one down a road with speed bumps — that is, along the planes of atoms in the lattice — and drive the other down a road of the same length without the speed bumps — analogous to moving between the lattice planes. Comparing the sounds from both guitars tells us something about the speed bumps: how big they are, how smooth, and do they have interesting shapes?”

The latest work, which was conducted at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in collaboration with researchers from Japan, the U.S. and Canada, resulted in a fourfold improvement in precision measurement of the silicon crystal structure.

Not-Quite-Neutral Neutrons

Each neutron in an atomic nucleus is made up of three elementary particles called quarks. The three quarks’ electrical charge sum to zero, making it electrically neutral. But the distribution of those charges is such that positive charges are more likely to be found in the center of the neutron, and negative charges toward the outside.  Credit: NIST

In one striking result, the scientists measured the electrical “charge radius” of the neutron in a new way with an uncertainty in the radius value competitive with the most-precise prior results using other methods. Neutrons are electrically neutral, as their name suggests. But they are composite objects made up of three elementary charged particles called quarks with different electrical properties that are not exactly uniformly distributed.

As a result, predominantly negative charge from one kind of quark tends to be located toward the outer part of the neutron, whereas net positive charge is located toward the center. The distance between those two concentrations is the “charge radius.” That dimension, important to fundamental physics, has been measured by similar types of experiments whose results differ significantly. The new pendellösung data is unaffected by the factors thought to lead to these discrepancies.

Measuring the pendellösung oscillations in an electrically charged environment provides a unique way to gauge the charge radius. “When the neutron is in the crystal, it is well within the atomic electric cloud,” said NIST’s Benjamin Heacock, the first author on the Science paper.

“In there, because the distances between charges are so small, the interatomic electric fields are enormous, on the order of a hundred million volts per centimeter. Because of that very, very large field, our technique is sensitive to the fact that the neutron behaves like a spherical composite particle with a slightly positive core and a slightly negative surrounding shell.”

Vibrations and Uncertainty

A valuable alternative to neutrons is X-ray scattering. But its accuracy has been limited by atomic motion caused by heat. Thermal vibration causes the distances between crystal planes to keep changing, and thus changes the interference patterns being measured.

The scientists employed neutron pendellösung oscillation measurements to test the values predicted by X-ray scattering models and found that some significantly underestimate the magnitude of the vibration.

The results provide valuable complementary information for both x-ray and neutron scattering. “Neutrons interact almost entirely with the protons and neutrons at the centers, or nuclei, of the atoms,” Huber said, “and x-rays reveal how the electrons are arranged between the nuclei. This complementary knowledge deepens our understanding.

“One reason our measurements are so sensitive is that neutrons penetrate much deeper into the crystal than x-rays – a centimeter or more – and thus measures a much larger assembly of nuclei. We have found evidence that the nuclei and electrons may not vibrate rigidly, as is commonly assumed. That shifts our understanding on the how silicon atoms interact with one another inside a crystal lattice.”

Force Five

The Standard Model is the current, widely accepted theory of how particles and forces interact at the smallest scales. But it’s an incomplete explanation of how nature works, and scientists suspect there is more to the universe than the theory describes.

The Standard Model describes three fundamental forces in nature: electromagnetic, strong and weak. Each force operates through the action of “carrier particles.” For example, the photon is the force carrier for the electromagnetic force. But the Standard Model has yet to incorporate gravity in its description of nature. Furthermore, some experiments and theories suggest the possible presence of a fifth force.

“Generally, if there’s a force carrier, the length scale over which it acts is inversely proportional to its mass,” meaning it can only influence other particles over a limited range, Heacock said. But the photon, which has no mass, can act over an unlimited range. “So, if we can bracket the range over which it might act, we can limit its strength.” The scientists’ results improve constraints on the strength of a potential fifth force by tenfold over a length scale between 0.02 nanometers (nm, billionths of a meter) and 10 nm, giving fifth-force hunters a narrowed range over which to look.

The researchers are already planning more expansive pendellösung measurements using both silicon and germanium. They expect a possible factor of five reduction in their measurement uncertainties, which could produce the most precise measurement of the neutron charge radius to date and further constrain — or discover — a fifth force. They also plan to perform a cryogenic version of the experiment, which would lend insight into how the crystal atoms behave in their so-called “quantum ground state,” which accounts for the fact that quantum objects are never perfectly still, even at temperatures approaching absolute zero.

Source/Credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology


Thursday, September 9, 2021

How land birds cross the open ocean


Terrestrial birds are capable of flying for hundreds of kilometers over the open sea. Nourani et al. show that the autumn migration trajectories of some of these birds correspond with uplift over the sea surface. Suitable uplift means less drag, making sea-crossing less energetically demanding. Moreover, strong uplift can allow the birds to soar.
© Elham Nourani / Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Migrating birds choose routes with the best wind and uplift conditions, helping them to fly nonstop for hundreds of kilometers over the sea

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and University of Konstanz in Germany have identified how large land birds fly nonstop for hundreds of kilometers over the open ocean—without taking a break for food or rest. Using GPS tracking technology, the team monitored the global migration of five species of large land birds that complete long sea crossings. They found that all birds exploited wind and uplift to reduce energy costs during flight—even adjusting their migratory routes to benefit from the best atmospheric conditions. This is the most wide-ranging study of sea-crossing behavior yet and reveals the important role of the atmosphere in facilitating migration over the open sea for many terrestrial birds.

Flying over the open sea can be dangerous for land birds. Unlike seabirds, land birds are not able to rest or feed on water, and so sea crossings must be conducted as nonstop flights. For centuries, bird-watchers assumed that large land birds only managed short sea crossings of less than 100 kilometers and completely avoided flying over the open ocean.

However, recent advances in GPS tracking technology have overturned that assumption. Data obtained by attaching small tracking devices on wild birds has shown that many land birds fly for hundreds or even thousands of kilometers over the open seas and oceans as a regular part of their migration.

But scientists are still unraveling how land birds are able to accomplish this. Flapping is an energetically costly activity, and trying to sustain nonstop flapping flight for hundreds of kilometers would not be possible for large, heavy land birds. Some studies have suggested that birds sustain such journeys using tailwind, a horizontal wind blowing in the bird’s direction of flight, which helps them save energy. Most recently, a study revealed that a single species—the osprey—used rising air thermals known as “uplift” to soar over the open sea.

Now, the new study has examined sea-crossing behavior of 65 birds across five species to gain the most wide-ranging insight yet into how land birds survive long flights over the open sea. The researchers analyzed 112 sea-crossing tracks, collected over nine years, with global atmospheric information to pinpoint the criteria that the birds use for selecting their migration routes over the open sea. A large international collaboration of scientists shared their tracking data to make this study possible.

The findings not only confirm the role of tailwind in facilitating sea-crossing behavior, but also reveal the widespread use of uplift for saving energy during these nonstop flights. Suitable uplift means less drag, making sea crossing less energetically demanding.

“Until recently, uplift was assumed to be weak or absent over the sea surface. We show that is not the case,” says first author Elham Nourani, a DAAD PRIME postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Biology at the University of Konstanz, who did the work when she was at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.

Terrestrial birds are capable of flying for hundreds of kilometers over the open sea. Nourani et al. show that the autumn migration trajectories of

some of these birds correspond with uplift over the sea surface. Suitable uplift means less drag, making sea-crossing less energetically demanding. Moreover, strong uplift can allow the birds to soar.

“Instead, we find that migratory birds adjust their flight routes to benefit from the best wind and uplift conditions when they fly over the sea. This helps them sustain flight for hundreds of kilometers,” says Nourani.

The oriental honey buzzard, for example, flies 700 kilometers over the East China Sea during its annual migration from Japan to southeast Asia. The roughly 18-hour nonstop sea crossing is conducted in autumn when the air movement conditions are optimal. “By making use of uplift, these birds can soar up to one kilometer above the sea surface,” says Nourani.

The study also raises the question of how migration will be affected by a changing climate. “Our findings show that many land birds are dependent on atmospheric support to complete their migrations over the open sea, indicating their vulnerability to any changes to the Earth’s atmospheric circulation patterns,” says Nourani. “Collaborative studies like this are important to unravel general patterns about how migratory birds depend on the weather patterns. This enables future studies to make robust predictions about how these birds will be impacted by climate change.”

Source/Credit: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft


The development of non-opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain

An image of the cryogenic electron microscopy structure of the human adenosine
A1 receptor (colored blue) bound to its signaling protein
(colored pink, green, and purple), adenosine (purple spheres)
and a proof-of-concept non-opioid analgesic (colored as orange spheres).
Monash University researchers have made a breakthrough discovery that could pave the way for the development of novel non-opioid painkillers (analgesics) to safely and effectively treat neuropathic pain.

The research was published today in the prestigious journal Nature.

Neuropathic pain is a type of chronic pain that can occur if your nervous system is damaged or not working correctly, and can be caused by injury, virus infection or cancer treatment, or be a symptom or complication of conditions such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

The new study, led by world-renowned drug researchers from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) and the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI), has demonstrated a new mode of targeting the adenosine A1 receptor protein, which has long been recognized as a promising therapeutic target for non-opioid painkillers to treat neuropathic pain but for which the development of painkillers had failed due to a lack of sufficient on-target selectivity, as well as undesirable adverse effects.

In the study, Monash researchers used electrophysiology and preclinical pain models to demonstrate that a particular class of molecule, called a ‘positive allosteric modulator’ (PAM), can provide much more selective targeting of the A1 receptor by binding to a different region of the protein than traditional, previously investigated, activators.

Another breakthrough in the study was facilitated by the application of cryo electron microscopy (cryoEM) to solve the high-resolution structure of the A1 receptor bound to both its natural activator, adenosine, and an analgesic PAM, thus providing the first atomic level snapshot of where these drugs bind.

Chronic pain remains a widespread global health burden, with lack of current therapeutic options leading to an over-reliance on opioid painkillers, which provide limited relief in patients with chronic (particularly neuropathic) pain, while exhibiting severe adverse effects, such as respiratory depression and addiction.

The new Monash discovery provides the opportunity for researchers to develop non-opioid drugs that lack such side effects.

Co-corresponding author of the study and Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (home to MIPS), Professor Arthur Christopoulos said: “The world is in the grip of a global opioid crisis and there is an urgent need for non-opioid drugs that are both safe and effective.”

Associate Professor Wendy Imlach, who is the head of the Pain Mechanisms lab at Monash BDI and a co-corresponding author of the work, stated: “This study has helped us to better understand mechanisms underpinning allosteric drug actions. One of the exciting things we found is that not only were the PAMs able to decrease neuropathic pain with minimal unwanted effects, but they actually increase their level of effectiveness as the pain signals in the spinal cord get stronger – thus highlighting the potential for allosteric medicines that are uniquely sensitive to disease context”.

Professor Christopoulos added: “This multidisciplinary study now provides a valuable launchpad for the next stage in our drug discovery pipeline, which will leverage structure-based insights for the design of novel non-opioid allosteric drugs to successfully treat chronic pain.”

This work was performed in collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Sydney, Kansas and Tokyo, Uppsala University, and the ARC Centre for cryo-Electron Microscopy of Membrane Proteins. It was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, the Australian Research Council, the Australian Heart Foundation, the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health, and the Swedish Research Council.

Source/Credit: Monash University


Mystery of icy plumes that may foretell deadly supercell storms


An Above Anvil Cirrus Plume emanates from the top of a storm.
(Image credit: NASA)
The most devastating tornadoes are often preceded by a cloudy plume of ice and water vapor billowing above a severe thunderstorm. New research reveals the mechanism for these plumes could be tied to “hydraulic jumps” – a phenomenon Leonardo Da Vinci observed more than 500 years ago.

When a cloudy plume of ice and water vapor billows up above the top of a severe thunderstorm, there’s a good chance a violent tornado, high winds or hailstones bigger than golf balls will soon pelt the Earth below.

A new Stanford University-led study, published Sept. 10 in Science, reveals the physical mechanism for these plumes, which form above most of the world’s most damaging tornadoes.

Previous research has shown they’re easy to spot in satellite imagery, often 30 minutes or more before severe weather reaches the ground. “The question is, why is this plume associated with the worst conditions, and how does it exist in the first place? That’s the gap that we are starting to fill,” said atmospheric scientist Morgan O’Neill, lead author of the new study.

The research comes just over a week after supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes spun up among the remnants of Hurricane Ida as they barreled into the U.S. Northeast, compounding devastation wrought across the region by record-breaking rainfall and flash floods.

Understanding how and why plumes take shape above powerful thunderstorms could help forecasters recognize similar impending dangers and issue more accurate warnings without relying on Doppler radar systems, which can be knocked out by wind and hail – and have blind spots even on good days. In many parts of the world, Doppler radar coverage is nonexistent.

“If there’s going to be a terrible hurricane, we can see it from space. We can’t see tornadoes because they’re hidden below thunderstorm tops. We need to understand the tops better,” said O’Neill, who is an assistant professor of Earth system science at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

Supercell storms and exploding turbulence

The thunderstorms that spawn most tornadoes are known as supercells, a rare breed of storm with a rotating updraft that can hurtle skyward at speeds faster than 150 miles an hour, with enough power to punch through the usual lid on Earth’s troposphere, the lowest layer of our atmosphere.

In weaker thunderstorms, rising currents of moist air tend to flatten and spread out upon reaching this lid, called the tropopause, forming an anvil-shaped cloud. A supercell thunderstorm’s intense updraft presses the tropopause upward into the next layer of the atmosphere, creating what scientists call an overshooting top. “It’s like a fountain pushing up against the next layer of our atmosphere,” O’Neill said.

As winds in the upper atmosphere race over and around the protruding storm top, they sometimes kick up streams of water vapor and ice, which shoot into the stratosphere to form the tell-tale plume, technically called an Above-Anvil Cirrus Plume, or AACP.

The rising air of the overshooting top soon speeds back toward the troposphere, like a ball that accelerates downward after cresting aloft. At the same time, air is flowing over the dome in the stratosphere and then racing down the sheltered side.

Using computer simulations of idealized supercell thunderstorms, O’Neill and colleagues discovered that this excites a downslope windstorm at the tropopause, where wind speeds exceed 240 miles per hour. “Dry air descending from the stratosphere and moist air rising from the troposphere join in this very narrow, crazy-fast jet. The jet becomes unstable and the whole thing mixes and explodes in turbulence,” O’Neill said. “These speeds at the storm top have never been observed or hypothesized before.”

Hydraulic jump

Scientists have long recognized that overshooting storm tops of moist air rising into the upper atmosphere can act like solid obstacles that block or redirect airflow. And it’s been proposed that waves of moist air flowing over these tops can break and loft water into the stratosphere. But no research to date has explained how all the pieces fit together.

The new modeling suggests the explosion of turbulence in the atmosphere that accompanies plumed storms unfolds through a phenomenon called a hydraulic jump. The same mechanism is at play when rushing winds tumble over mountains and generate turbulence on the downslope side, or when water speeding smoothly down a dam’s spillway abruptly bursts into froth upon joining slower-moving water below.

Leonardo DaVinci observed the phenomenon in flowing water as early as the 1500s, and ancient Romans may have sought to limit hydraulic jumps in aqueduct designs. But until now atmospheric scientists have only seen the dynamic induced by solid topography. The new modeling suggests a hydraulic jump can also be triggered by fluid obstacles in the atmosphere made almost entirely of air and which are changing shape every second, miles above the Earth’s surface.

The simulations suggest the onset of the jump coincides with a surprisingly rapid injection of water vapor into the stratosphere, upwards of 7000 kilograms per second. That’s two to four times higher than previous estimates. Once it reaches the overworld, water may stay there for days or weeks, potentially influencing the amount and quality of sunlight that reaches Earth via destruction of ozone in the stratosphere and warming the planet’s surface. “In our simulations that exhibit plumes, water reaches deep into the stratosphere, where it possibly could have more of a long-term climate impact,” said co-author Leigh Orf, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

According to O’Neill, high-altitude NASA research aircraft have only recently gained the ability to observe the three-dimensional winds at the tops of thunderstorms, and have not yet observed AACP production at close range. “We have the technology now to go verify our modeling results to see if they’re realistic,” O’Neill said. “That’s really a sweet spot in science.”

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the NASA Precipitation Measurement Mission and Ground Validation program.

Source/Credit: Stanford University/Josie Garthwaite


Ancient sea ice core sheds light on modern climate change


A 170 m record of marine sediment cores extracted from Adélie Land in Antarctica by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program is yielding new insights into the complicated relationship between sea ice and climate change.

In a new study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers at the University of Birmingham, have collaborated in an international project to identify how fluctuations in sea ice levels have interconnected with both algae blooms and weather events linked to El Nino over the past 12,000 years.

They found that Antarctic winds strongly affect the break-out and melting of sea ice, which in turn affects the levels of algae which can grow rapidly in surface waters when sea ice is reduced. Changes in the levels of algae growth in the waters surrounding the Antarctic are important enough to affect the global carbon cycle.

The researchers used techniques such as CT scan (computed tomography) imaging and analysis of microfossils and organic biomarkers, to examine the relationship between sea ice and large algae growth “bloom” events at annual timescales. The findings, produced in partnership with research institutes in New Zealand, Japan, France, Spain and the USA, span the entire Holocene period and have yielded a highly detailed picture of these relationships that can help predict future sea ice, climate and biological interactions.

The researchers found that algal bloom events occurred nearly every year before 4,500 years ago. However, a baseline shift to less frequent algal blooms and the type of algal production after 4.5 thousand years ago, saw bloom events responding to the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and other climate cycles as sea-ice levels rapidly increased. Recent work by many of the same team links the expansion of sea ice at this time to glacial retreat and the development of the Ross Ice Shelf, which acts to cool Antarctic surface waters to create a “sea-ice factory”.

Dr James Bendle, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science, is a co-author on the paper. He said: “While there’s a clear relationship between temperatures rising in the Arctic over recent decades and sea ice melting, the picture is more complex in the Antarctic. That’s because some areas of the Antarctic are warming, but in some areas sea ice has been increasing. Since sea ice reflects incoming sunlight, not only is the warming effect slowed down, but algae are unable to photosynthesize as easily. Climate models currently struggle to predict observed changes in sea ice for the Antarctic, and our findings will help climate researchers build more robust and detailed models.”

He added: “The relationship we have observed with these changing conditions and the ENSO wind fields is particularly significant. We know that El Nino amplifies the effects of climate change in some regions, so any insights linking this with Antarctic Sea ice is fascinating and has implications for how future long-term loss of sea ice may affect food webs in Antarctic waters, as well as carbon cycling processes within this globally important region.”

Dr Katelyn Johnson, of GNS Science, in New Zealand, is the lead author on the paper. She said: “While sea ice that persists from year to year can prevent these large algal blooms from occurring, sea ice that breaks out and melts creates a favorable environment for these algae to grow. These large algae ‘bloom events’ occur around the continent, form the base of the food webs and act as a carbon sink”.

“Unlike the Arctic where rising temperatures have led to reduced sea ice, the relationship in the Antarctic is less clear, as is the subsequent impact on primary productivity. Our new record provides a longer-term view of how sea ice and climate models like ENSO impact the frequency of these bloom events, allowing climate modelers to build more robust models.”

Source/Credit: University of Birmingham


Moth wingtips an ‘acoustic decoy’ to thwart bat attack


The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) has a strong anti-bat acoustic decoy at the tip of its forewings. Composite image with photograph on right half and acoustic tomography on the left. Color indicates echo strength on a dB scale and red indicates highest echo amplitude. Note the red highly reflecting stripe created by the rippled part of the wingtip.
Image Credit: Dr Thomas Neil and Professor Marc Holderied

Wingtips of certain species of silkmoth are structured to reflect sound and throw off attackers, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Bristol have discovered that the tips of some saturniid moth forewings are curiously rippled and folded. They found that these unique structures strongly reflect sound, meaning that a bat hunting using echolocation is more likely to attack the wingtip region of the moth over the body, potentially saving the moth’s life.

Photograph of the Chinese tussar moth (Antheraea pernyi).
This silkmoth has a strong wingtip decoy based on ripples. 
Image Credit: Dr Thomas Neil
They also discovered that the ripples and folds of the forewing tips have evolved to act as hemispheric and corner retroreflectors respectively, meaning that they reflect sound strongly back to its point of origin. Coupled together, the folds and ripples of these wingtips cover a huge range of incident sounds angles, meaning that over the entire wingbeat cycle of a flying moth and most possible positions of an attacking bat, the wingtip would consistently produce the strongest echoes. The acoustic protection of wingtips is even stronger than that of common hindwing decoys.

Professor Marc Holderied of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences explained: “We have demonstrated that the folded and rippled wingtips on the forewings of some silkmoths act as acoustic decoys.

“Structurally, the wingtips act as acoustic retroreflectors, reflecting sound back to its source from numerous angles, meaning a bat would be more likely to strike the wingtip over the more vulnerable body of the moth.”

The findings, published today in Current Biology, are the latest revelation in the bat-moth acoustic arms race - the battle between bats which hunt moths using echolocation, and the subsequent evolution of different defensive strategies amongst moths to increase their chances of survival.

Photograph of the Chinese tussar moth (Antheraea pernyi).
This silkmoth has a strong wingtip decoy
based on ripples. Image Credit: Dr Thomas Neil
Towed acoustic decoys are a well-established defense amongst some silkmoths. These species have evolved elongated hindwings which terminate in a coiled and twisted end. The morphology of these elongated hindwings means that they generate very strong echoes, so much so that they will often divert a bat’s acoustic gaze towards them, away from the exposed body of the moth, causing the bat to strike the expendable tail of the moth or miss the moth all together.

Lead author Dr Thomas Neil said: “There are many silkmoths that do not have these elongated hindwings, and we were interested in how they might protect themselves from bats. Through our research we discovered that there are many silkmoths that have rippled and folded structures not on the tips of their elongated hindwings but on the tips of their forewings. These resembled the twisted hindwing structures seen in other moths and so we wanted to know if they might also serve as an acoustic decoy to thwart a bat’s attack.

“To test this theory, we used innovative acoustic tomography analysis. We recorded echoes from moths from over 10,000 angles, to compare whether the echoes coming from the wingtips of these moths were stronger than the echoes from the body. If the echoes coming from the rippled and folded wingtips were stronger than that of the body, this would indicate that they were indeed acoustic decoys.

“Conclusive support for the idea that the forewing reflector is an acoustic decoy comes from our finding that acoustic forewing decoys always evolved as an alternative to acoustic hindwing decoys, with there being no species known to possess both.”

Now the researchers will try and collect behavioral data to corroborate their findings in the lab. They plan to monitor bats and moths with varying levels of folded wing morphologies to see how much of a survival advantage it really gives them.

Prof Holderied added:“The results of this study introduce another exciting aspect to the story of the bat-moths acoustic arms race. We have identified a novel form of acoustic defense amongst silkmoths which may give them an advantage over hunting bats. Wider implications might include improved man-made anti radar and sonar decoy architectures.”

Source/Credit: University of Bristol


ESO captures best images yet of peculiar “dog-bone” asteroid

These eleven images are of the asteroid Kleopatra, viewed at different angles as it rotates. The images were taken at different times between 2017 and 2019 with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s VLT.   Kleopatra orbits the Sun in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers have called it a “dog-bone asteroid” ever since radar observations around 20 years ago revealed it has two lobes connected by a thick “neck”. 
Credit / Source: ESO/Vernazza, Marchis et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), a team of astronomers have obtained the sharpest and most detailed images yet of the asteroid Kleopatra. The observations have allowed the team to constrain the 3D shape and mass of this peculiar asteroid, which resembles a dog bone, to a higher accuracy than ever before. Their research provides clues as to how this asteroid and the two moons that orbit it formed.

“Kleopatra is truly a unique body in our Solar System,” says Franck Marchis, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, USA and at the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, France, who led a study on the asteroid — which has moons and an unusual shape — published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Science makes a lot of progress thanks to the study of weird outliers. I think Kleopatra is one of those and understanding this complex, multiple asteroid system can help us learn more about our Solar System.”

Kleopatra orbits the Sun in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers have called it a “dog-bone asteroid” ever since radar observations around 20 years ago revealed it has two lobes connected by a thick “neck”. In 2008, Marchis and his colleagues discovered that Kleopatra is orbited by two moons, named AlexHelios and CleoSelene, after the Egyptian queen’s children.

To find out more about Kleopatra, Marchis and his team used snapshots of the asteroid taken at different times between 2017 and 2019 with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s VLT. As the asteroid was rotating, they were able to view it from different angles and to create the most accurate 3D models of its shape to date. They constrained the asteroid’s dog-bone shape and its volume, finding one of the lobes to be larger than the other, and determined the length of the asteroid to be about 270 kilometers or about half the length of the English Channel.

This image provides a size comparison of the asteroid Kleopatra with northern Italy.   The top half of the image shows a computer model of Kleopatra, a “dog-bone” shaped asteroid which orbits the Sun in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. End to end, Kleopatra is 270 kilometers long.   The bottom half of the image gives an aerial view of northern Italy, with the footprint Kleopatra would have if it were hovering above it.   
Credit / Sou: ESO/M. Kornmesser/Marchis et al.
In a second study, also published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and led by Miroslav Brož of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, the team reported how they used the SPHERE observations to find the correct orbits of Kleopatra’s two moons. Previous studies had estimated the orbits, but the new observations with ESO’s VLT showed that the moons were not where the older data predicted them to be.

“This had to be resolved,” says Brož. “Because if the moons’ orbits were wrong, everything was wrong, including the mass of Kleopatra.” Thanks to the new observations and sophisticated modelling, the team managed to precisely describe how Kleopatra’s gravity influences the moons’ movements and to determine the complex orbits of AlexHelios and CleoSelene. This allowed them to calculate the asteroid’s mass, finding it to be 35% lower than previous estimates.

Combining the new estimates for volume and mass, astronomers were able to calculate a new value for the density of the asteroid, which, at less than half the density of iron, turned out to be lower than previously thought. The low density of Kleopatra, which is believed to have a metallic composition, suggests that it has a porous structure and could be little more than a “pile of rubble”. This means it likely formed when material reaccumulated following a giant impact.

Kleopatra’s rubble-pile structure and the way it rotates also give indications as to how its two moons could have formed. The asteroid rotates almost at a critical speed, the speed above which it would start to fall apart, and even small impacts may lift pebbles off its surface. Marchis and his team believe that those pebbles could subsequently have formed AlexHelios and CleoSelene, meaning that Kleopatra has truly birthed its own moons.

The new images of Kleopatra and the insights they provide are only possible thanks to one of the advanced adaptive optics systems in use on ESO’s VLT, which is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Adaptive optics help to correct for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere which cause objects to appear blurred — the same effect that causes stars viewed from Earth to twinkle. Thanks to such corrections, SPHERE was able to image Kleopatra — located 200 million kilometers away from Earth at its closest — even though its apparent size on the sky is equivalent to that of a golf ball about 40 kilometers away.

ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), with its advanced adaptive optics systems, will be ideal for imaging distant asteroids such as Kleopatra. “I can’t wait to point the ELT at Kleopatra, to see if there are more moons and refine their orbits to detect small changes,” adds Marchis.

Source/Credit: ESO

09-09-21 12:00UTC

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