Australian Bushfires

In this blog for Scientific American, Nerilie Abram examines the science behind the bushfires raging in Australia. Wildfires require four ingredients: available fuel; dryness of that fuel; weather conditions that aid the spread of that fire; and an ignition. Abram focuses on the second and third conditions as the key causal factors in the current outbreak. The author states that anthropogenic climate change has been the decisive causal factor in a “perfect storm” of weather conditions and dryness that have aided the spread of bushfires in southern and eastern Australia in recent months. Aside from a general warming of Australia’s climate (which has risen by more than one degree Celsius over the last century), Abram highlights declining levels of winter rainfall as another key factor. In both the southwest and the southeast of Australia, winter precipitation levels have declined by up to 20% since the 1970s. South-eastern Australia has been in drought since 2017. The dry conditions have killed off much of the vegetation and have dried out wet rainforest, allowing fires to reach areas previously considered safe. This lack of rainfall, Abram states, can also be directly linked to the effects of global warming.

Healthy England

December 2019 saw the results from the annual Health Survey for England released, a survey conducted by NHS Digital which looked at the state of the nation’s health in 2018. A total of 8,178 adults (aged 16 and over) and 2,072 children (aged 0 to 15) were monitored and studied, with around half of these also receiving a visit from a nurse. The survey found that a majority of adults in England are overweight or obese, but found a slight improvement in rates of adult obesity compared to 2017. The most economically-deprived areas in England were found to have adult obesity rates almost twice as high as in the least deprived areas. In addition, 28% of children aged 2 to 15 were overweight or obese, a drop of two percentage points from 2017. The survey found that the declining trend of cigarette smoking in England continued, although smoking was still the leading cause of preventable illness and premature death. Tobacco use also remained the biggest contributor to health inequalities. Smoking levels were found to be higher in economically-deprived areas, a trend consistent with previous surveys. Finally, 27% of adults reported less than 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity per week. The survey also shows that the percentage of adults engaging in less than 30 minutes of physical activity per week is higher in older age categories.

2020 in Science

Writers at Science discussed the stories most likely to shape 2020. They stated that the CRISPR gene-editing tool faces an important year, with a US study examining whether it could prevent further malignant cells from growing in cancer patients. The CRISPR technology refers to a collection of genome editing systems that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA. In Canada, a CRISPR study is also examining whether the tool could improve sight in patients with progressive blindness. Meanwhile, the race to detect hypothetical particles of dark matter is set to enter a new phase, with the launch of two powerful new underground detectors. Scientists have been searching for the invisible particle they think may bind together galaxies with its gravity for decades. In the world of technology, China looks set to build the world’s first exascale computer, a supercomputer capable of carrying out 1 billion billion calculations per second. The computer will be capable of processing vast data sets from astronomical and genetic surveys.