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    The last 30 years were the hottest on record for the United States

    There’s a new normal for U.S. weather. On May 4, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced an official change to its reference values for temperature and precipitation. Instead of using the average values from 1981 to 2010, NOAA’s new “climate normals” will be the averages from 1991 to 2020.

    This new period is the warmest on record for the country. Compared with the previous 30-year-span, for example, the average temperature across the contiguous United States rose from 11.6° Celsius (52.8° Fahrenheit) to 11.8° C (53.3° F). Some of the largest increases were in the South and Southwest — and that same region also showed a dramatic decrease in precipitation (SN: 8/17/20).  

    The United States and other members of the World Meteorological Organization are required to update their climate normals every 10 years. These data put daily weather events in historical context and also help track changes in drought conditions, energy use and freeze risks for farmers.

    That moving window of averages for the United States also tells a stark story about the accelerating pace of climate change. When each 30-year period is compared with the average temperatures from 1901 to 2000, no part of the country is cooler now than it was during the 20th century. And temperatures in large swaths of the country, from the American West to the Northeast, are 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher. More

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    ‘Tree farts’ contribute about a fifth of greenhouse gases from ghost forests

    If a tree farts in the forest, does it make a sound? No, but it does add a smidge of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

    Gases released by dead trees — dubbed “tree farts” — account for roughly one-fifth of the greenhouse gases emitted by skeletal, marshy forests along the coast of North Carolina, researchers report online May 10 in Biogeochemistry. While these emissions pale in comparison with other sources, an accurate accounting is necessary to get a full picture of where climate-warming gases come from.

    A team of ecologists went sniffing for tree farts in ghost forests, which form when saltwater from rising sea levels poisons a woodland, leaving behind a marsh full of standing dead trees. These phantom ecosystems are expected to expand with climate change, but it’s unclear exactly how they contribute to the world’s carbon budget.

    “The emergence of ghost forests is one of the biggest changes happening in response to sea level rise,” says Keryn Gedan, a coastal ecologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the work. “As forests convert to wetlands, we expect over long timescales that’s going to represent a substantial carbon sink,” she says, since wetlands store more carbon than forests. But in the short term, dead trees decay and stop taking up carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, “so that’s going to be a major greenhouse gas source.”

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    To better understand how ghost forests pass gas into the atmosphere, the researchers measured greenhouse gases wafting off dead trees and soil in five ghost forests on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in North Carolina. “It’s kind of eerie” out there, says Melinda Martinez, a wetland ecologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

    But Martinez ain’t afraid of no ghost forest. In 2018 and 2019, she measured CO2, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from dead trees using a portable gas analyzer she toted on her back. “I definitely looked like a ghostbuster,” she says.

    Wetland ecologist Melinda Martinez totes a portable gas analyzer on her back to measure the “tree farts” emitted by a ghost forest tree. A tube connects the gas analyzer to an airtight seal around the trunk of the tree.M. Ardón

    Soils gave off most of the greenhouse gases from the ghost forests. Each square meter of ground emitted an average 416 milligrams of CO2, 5.9 milligrams of methane and 0.1 milligrams of nitrous oxide per hour. On average, dead trees released about 116 milligrams of CO2, 0.3 milligrams of methane and 0.04 milligrams of nitrous oxide per square meter per hour — totaling about one-fourth the soil’s emissions.

    Measuring greenhouse gases from the trees is “kind of measuring the last breath of these forests,” says Marcelo Ardón, an ecosystems ecologist and biogeochemist at North Carolina State University. The dead trees “don’t emit a ton, but they are important” to a ghost forest’s overall emissions.

    Ardón coined the term “tree farts” to describe the dead trees’ greenhouse gas emissions. “I have an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old, and fart jokes are what we talk about,” he explains. But the analogy has a biological basis, too. Actual farts are caused by microbes in the body; the greenhouse gases emitted by ghost forests are created by microbes in the soil and trees.

    In the grand scheme of carbon emissions, ghost forests’ role may be minor. Tree farts, for instance, have nothing on cow burps (SN: 11/18/15). A single dairy cow can emit up to 27 grams of methane — a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 — per hour. But accounting for even minor sources of carbon is important for fine-tuning our understanding of the global carbon budget, says Martinez (SN: 10/1/19). So it would behoove scientists not to turn up their noses at ghost tree farts.   More

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    ‘Zombie’ forest fires may become more common with climate change

    Winter usually kills most forest fires. But in the boreal woods that encircle the far North, some fires, like zombies, just don’t die. 

    The first broad scientific look at overwintering “zombie fires” reveals these rare occurrences can flare up the year after warmer-than-normal summers and account for up to 38 percent of the total burn area in some regions, researchers report online May 19 in Nature. As climate change accelerates in boreal forests, the frequency of zombie fires could rise and exacerbate warming by releasing more greenhouse gases from the region’s soils, which may house twice as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere (SN: 4/11/19).

    Zombie fires hibernate underground. Blanketed by snow, they smolder through the cold, surviving on the carbon-rich fuel of peat and boreal soil and moving very slowly — just 100 to 500 meters over the winter. Come spring, the fires reemerge near the forest they previously charred, burning fresh fuel well before the traditional fire season starts. Until now, these zombie fires have remained relatively mysterious to science, known mostly from firefighter anecdotes.

    Strange coincidences on satellite images, however, got the attention of earth systems scientist Rebecca Scholten and her colleagues. “My adviser noticed that some years, new fires were starting very close to the previous year’s fire,” says Scholten, of Vrije University Amsterdam. This is unusual, she says, since boreal fires are usually sparked by random lightning or human activity. Local fire managers confirmed that these were the same fires, prompting the researchers to wonder just how often fires overwinter.

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    To find evidence of underground fires, the researchers combined firefighter reports with satellite images of Alaska and northern Canada captured from 2002 to 2018. They looked for blazes that started close to the scars left the previous year and that began before midsummer, when lightning-sparked fires usually occur.

    The team found that zombie fires are rare, accounting for 0.8 percent of the total area burned by forest fires in these regions over those 16 years, but there was lots of variability. In 2008, one zombie fire burned approximately 13,700 hectares in Alaska, about 38 percent of all burned areas that year in that state. Zombie fires were more likely to occur, and burn larger swaths of land, after warmer summers that allowed fires to reach deeper into the soil, the researchers found.

    Boreal forests are warming faster that the global average and “we’re seeing more hot summers and more large fires and intense burning,” Scholten says. That might set the stage for zombie fires to play a bigger role.

    “This is a really welcome advance which could help fire management,” says Jessica McCarty, a geographer at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who wasn’t involved in the study. Understanding when zombie fires are more likely to occur could help firefighters identify these areas early, she says, protecting fragile landscapes that house a lot of climate warming gases.

    “Some of these soils are thousands of years old,” McCarty says. While “areas we thought were fire resistant are now fire prone” due to climate change, she says, better fire management can make a difference. “We’re not helpless.” More

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    Climate change disinformation is evolving. So are efforts to fight back

    Over the last four decades, a highly organized, well-funded campaign powered by the fossil fuel industry has sought to discredit the science that links global climate change to human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. These disinformation efforts have sown confusion over data, questioned the integrity of climate scientists and denied the scientific consensus on the role of humans.

    Such disinformation efforts are outlined in internal documents from fossil fuel giants such as Shell and Exxon. As early as the 1980s, oil companies knew that burning fossil fuels was altering the climate, according to industry documents reviewed at a 2019 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. Yet these companies, aided by some scientists, set out to mislead the public, deny well-established science and forestall efforts to regulate emissions.

    But the effects of climate change on extreme events such as wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes have become hard to downplay (SN: 12/19/20 & SN: 1/2/21, p. 37). Not coincidentally, climate disinformation tactics have shifted from outright denial to distraction and delay (SN: 1/16/21, p. 28).

    As disinformation tactics evolve, researchers continue to test new ways to combat them. Debunking by fact-checking untrue statements is one way to combat climate disinformation. Another way, increasingly adopted by social media platforms, is to add warning labels flagging messages as possible disinformation, such as the labels Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram) began adding in 2020 regarding the U.S. presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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    At the same time, Facebook was sharply criticized for a change to its fact-checking policies that critics say enables the spread of climate disinformation. In 2019, the social media giant decided to exempt posts that it determines to be opinion or satire from fact-checking, creating a potentially large disinformation loophole.

    In response to mounting criticism, Facebook unveiled a pilot project in February for its users in the United Kingdom, with labels pointing out myths about climate change. The labels also point users to Facebook’s climate science information center.

    For this project, Facebook consulted several climate communication experts. Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, and cognitive scientist John Cook of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., helped the company develop a new “myth-busting” unit that debunks common climate change myths — such as that scientists don’t agree that global warming is happening.

    Cook and van der Linden have also been testing ways to get out in front of disinformation, an approach known as prebunking, or inoculation theory. By helping people recognize common rhetorical techniques used to spread climate disinformation — such as logical fallacies, relying on fake “experts” and cherry-picking only the data that support one view — the two hope to build resilience against these tactics.

    This new line of defense may come with a bonus, van der Linden says. Training people in these techniques could build a more general resilience to disinformation, whether related to climate, vaccines or COVID-19.

    Science News asked Cook and van der Linden about debunking conspiracies, collaborating with Facebook and how prebunking is (and isn’t) like getting vaccinated. The conversations, held separately, have been edited for brevity and clarity.

    We’ve seen both misinformation and disinformation used in the climate change denial discussion. What’s the difference?

    van der Linden: Misinformation is any information that’s incorrect, whether due to error or fake news. Disinformation is deliberately intended to deceive. Then there’s propaganda: disinformation with a political agenda. But in practice, it’s difficult to disentangle them. Often, people use misinformation because it’s the broadest category.

    Has there been a change in the nature of climate change denialism in the last few decades?

    Cook: It is shifting. For example, we fed 21 years of [climate change] denial blog posts from the U.K. into a machine learning program. We found that the science denialism misinformation is gradually going down — and solution misinformation [targeting climate policy and renewable energy] is on the rise [as reported online in early March at SocArXiv.org].

    As the science becomes more apparent, it becomes more untenable to attack it. We see spikes in policy misinformation just before the government brings in new science policy, such as a carbon pricing bill. And there was a huge spike before the [2015] Paris climate agreement. That’s what we will see more of over time.

    How do you hope Facebook’s new climate change misinformation project will help?

    Cook: We need tech solutions, like flagging and tagging misinformation, as well as social media platforms downplaying it, so [the misinformation] doesn’t get put on as many people’s feeds. We can’t depend on social media. A look behind the curtain at Facebook showed me the challenge of getting corporations to adequately respond. There are a lot of internal tensions.

    van der Linden: I’ve worked with WhatsApp and Google, and it’s always the same story. They want to do the right thing, but don’t follow through because it hurts engagement on the platform.

    But going from not taking a stance on climate change to taking a stance, that’s a huge win. What Facebook has done is a step forward. They listened to our designs and suggestions and comments on their [pilot] test.

    We wanted more than a neutral [label directing people to Facebook’s information page on climate change], but they wanted to test the neutral post first. That’s all good. It’ll be a few months at least for the testing in the U.K. phase to roll out, but we don’t yet know how many other countries they will roll it out to and when. We all came on board with the idea that they’re going to do more, and more aggressively. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it rolls out globally. That’s my criteria for success.

    Scientists have been countering climate change misinformation for years, through fact-checking and debunking. It’s a bit like whack-a-mole. You advocate for “inoculating” people against the techniques that help misinformation spread through communities. How can that help?

    van der Linden: Fact-checking and debunking is useful if you do it right. But there’s the issue of ideology, of resistance to fact-checking when it’s not in line with ideology. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could prevent [disinformation] in the first place? That’s the whole point of prebunking or inoculation. It’s a multilayer defense system. If you can get there first, that’s great. But that won’t always be possible, so you still have real-time fact-checking. This multilayer firewall is going to be the most useful thing.

    You’ve both developed online interactive tools, games really, to test the idea of inoculating people against disinformation tactics. Sander, you created an online interactive game called Bad News, in which players can invent conspiracies and act as fake news producers. A study of 15,000 participants reported in 2019 in Palgrave Communications showed that by playing at creating misinformation, people got better at recognizing it. But how long does this “inoculation” last?

    van der Linden: That’s an important difference in the viral analogy. Biological vaccines give more or less lifelong immunity, at least for some kinds of viruses. That’s not the case for a psychological vaccine. It wears off over time.

    In one study, we followed up with people [repeatedly] for about three months, during which time they didn’t replay the game. We found no decay of the inoculation effect, which was quite surprising. The inoculation remained stable for about two months. In [a shorter study focused on] climate change misinformation, the inoculation effect also remained stable, for at least one week.

    John, what about your game Cranky Uncle? At first, it focused on climate change denial, but you’ve expanded it to include other types of misinformation, on topics such as COVID-19, flat-earthism and vaccine misinformation. How well do techniques to inoculate against climate change denialism translate to other types of misinformation?

    Cook: The techniques used in climate denial are seen in all forms of misinformation. Working on deconstructing [that] misinformation introduced me to parallel argumentation, which is basically using analogies to combat flawed logic. That’s what late night comedians do: Make what is obviously a ridiculous argument. The other night, for example, Seth Meyers talked about how Texas blaming its [February] power outage on renewable energy was like New Jersey blaming its problems on Boston [clam chowder].

    My main tip is to arm yourself with awareness of misleading techniques. Think of it like a virus spreading: You don’t want to be a superspreader. Make sure that you’re wearing a mask, for starters. And when you see misinformation, call it out. That observational correction — it matters. It makes a difference. More

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    The U.S.’s first open-air genetically modified mosquitoes have taken flight

    The first genetically modified mosquitoes that will be allowed to fly free outdoors in the United States have started reaching the age for mating in the Florida Keys.

    In a test of the biotech company Oxitec’s GM male mosquitoes for pest control, these Aedes aegypti started growing from tiny eggs set out in toaster-sized, hexagonal boxes on suburban private properties in late April. On May 12, experiment monitors confirmed that males had matured enough to start flying off on their own to court American female mosquitoes.

    This short-term Florida experiment marks the first outdoor test in the United States of a strain of GM male mosquitoes as a highly targeted pest control strategy. This strain is engineered to shrink local populations of Ae. aegypti, a mosquito species that spreads dengue and Zika (SN: 7/29/16). That could start happening now that the GM mosquitoes have reached mating age because their genetics makes them such terrible choices as dads.

    The mosquitoes now waving distinctively masculine (extra fluffy) antennae in Florida carry genetic add-ons that block development in females. No female larvae should survive to adulthood in the wild, says molecular biologist Nathan Rose, Oxitec’s chief of regulatory affairs. Half the released males’ sons, however, will carry dad’s daughter-killing trait. The sons of the bad dads can go on to trick a new generation of females into unwise mating decisions and doomed daughters (SN: 1/8/09).

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    The trait is not designed to last in an area’s mosquitoes, though. The genetics just follow the same old rules of natural inheritance that mosquitoes and people follow: Traits pass to some offspring and not others. Only half a bad dad’s sons will carry the daughter-killing trait. The others will sire normal mosquito families.

    Imagined versions of live-mosquito pest control in Florida have been both glorified and savaged in spirited community meetings for some time (SN: 8/22/20). But now it’s real. “I’m sure you can understand why we’re so excited,” said Andrea Leal, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, at the mosquito test (virtual) kickoff April 29.

    The debate over these transgenic Ae. aegypti mosquitoes has gone on so long that Oxitec has upgraded its original more coddled version with one that is essentially plug and play. The newer strain, dubbed OX5034, no longer needs a breeding colony with its (biting) females and antibiotics in easy reach of the release area to produce fresh males.

    Instead, Oxitec can just ship eggs in a phase of suspended development from its home base in Abingdon, England, to whatever location around the world, high-tech or not, wants to deploy them. Brazil has already tested this OX5034 strain and gone through the regulatory process to permit Oxitec to sell it there.

    The targets for these potential living pest controls will be just their own kind. They represent only about 4 percent of the combined populations of the 45 or so mosquito species whining around the Keys. Other species get annoying, and a more recent invader, Ae. albopictus, can also spread dengue and Zika to some extent. Yet Leal blames just about all the current human disease spread by mosquitoes in the Keys, including last year’s dengue outbreak, on Ae. aegypti.

    It’s one of the top three mosquitoes in the world in the number of diseases it can spread, says Don Yee, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, who studies mosquitoes (SN: 3/31/21). His lab has linked at least three dozen human pathogens, including some viruses and worms, to Ae. aegypti. Although most mosquitoes lurk outdoors in vegetation, this one loves humankind. In the tropics, “the adults are literally resting on the walls or the ceiling,” he says. “They’re hanging around the bathroom.” The species bites humans for more than half of its blood meals.

    In a long-running battle with this beast, staff in Florida in late April added water to boxes of shipped eggs and set them out at selected suburban private properties on Vaca, Cudjoe and Ramrod Keys. Other spots, with no added mosquitoes, will be watched as controls. All locations were chosen in part because American-hatched females of the same species were already there to be wooed, Rose says.

    Toaster-sized hexagonal boxes (one pictured) that contain eggs of genetically modified Aedes aegypti were set out on selected private property in the Keys in late April. There the males develop normally — and then fly away to mate.Oxitec

    Males typically don’t billow out of their boxes in a gray cloud but emerge sporadically, a few at a time. If all goes well in this preliminary test, up to 12,000 GM mosquitoes in total across the release sites will take to the air each week for 12 weeks.

    Neighboring households will host mosquito traps to monitor how far from the nursery boxes the Oxitec GM males tend to fly. That’s data that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to see. Based on distance tests elsewhere, 50 meters might be the median, Rose estimates. 

    The distance matters because pest controllers want to keep the free-flying GM mosquitoes away from outdoor sources of the antibiotic tetracycline. That’s the substance the genetic engineers use as an off switch for the self-destruct mechanism in female larvae. Rearing facilities supply the antibiotic to larvae, turning off the lethal genetics and letting females survive in a lab to lay eggs for the next generation.

    If GM males loosed in Florida happened to breed with a female that lays eggs in some puddle of water laced with the right concentration of tetracycline, daughters that inherited the switch could survive to adulthood as biters and breeders. The main possible sources in the Keys would be sewage treatment plants, Rose says. The test designers say they have selected sites well away from them.

    After the distance tests, bigger releases still start looking at how well males fare and whether pest numbers shrink. Up to 20 million Oxitec mosquitoes in total could be released in tests running into the fall.

    Despite some high-profile protests, finding people to host the boxes was not hard, Rose says. “We were oversubscribed.” At public hearings, the critics of the project typically outshout the fans. Yet there’s also support. In a 2016 nonbinding referendum on using GM mosquitoes, 31 of 33 precincts in Monroe County, which comprises the Keys, voted yes for the test release. Twenty of those victories were competitive though, not reaching 60 percent.

    The males being released rely on a live-sons/dead-daughters strategy. That’s a change from the earlier strain of Oxitec mosquitoes. Those males sabotaged all offspring regardless of sex. The change came during the genetic redesign that permits an egg-shipping strategy. Surviving sons, however, mean the nonengineered genes in the new Oxitec strain can mix into the Florida population more than in the original version.

    Those mixed-in genes from the test are “unlikely” to strengthen Floridian mosquitoes’ powers to spread disease, researchers from the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a May 1, 2020 memorandum. Many factors besides mosquito genetics affect how a disease spreads, the reviewers noted. Oxitec will be monitoring for mixing.

    There may be at least one upside to mixing, Rose says. The lab colonies have little resistance to some common pesticides such as permethrin that the Floridian mosquitoes barely seem to notice.

    Pesticide resistance in the Keys is what drives a lot of the interest in GM techniques, says chemist Phil Goodman, who chairs the local mosquito control district’s board of commissioners. During the dengue outbreak in 2009 and 2010, the first one in decades, the district discovered that its spray program had just about zero effect on Ae. aegypti. With some rethinking of the program’s chemicals, the control district can now wipe out up to 50 percent of mosquitoes of this species in a treated area. That’s not great control, at best. Then when bad weather intervenes for days in a row, the mosquitoes rebound, Goodman says.

    The invasive mosquito species Aedes aegypti (shown), which can spread Zika, dengue and yellow fever, is now under attack in the Florida Keys by GM males genetically tweaked to sabotage the American mosquito populations.Joao Paulo Burini/Moment/Getty Images Plus

    Since that 2009–2010 outbreak, catching dengue in Florida instead of just through foreign travel has become more common. In 2020, an unusually bad year for dengue, Florida reported 70 cases caught locally, according to the CDC’s provisional tally. 

    Traditional pesticides can mess with creatures besides their pest targets, and some critics of the GMO mosquitoes also worry about unexpected ecological effects. Yet success of the Oxitec mosquitoes in slamming the current pests should not cause some disastrous shortage of food or pollination for natives, Yee says. Ae. aegypti invaded North America within the past four centuries, probably too short a time to become absolutely necessary for some native North American predator or plant.

    For more details on pretrial tests and data, the Mosquito Control District has now posted a swarm of documents about the GM mosquitoes. The EPA’s summary of Oxitec’s tests, for instance, reports no effects noticed for feeding the aquatic mosquito larvae to crawfish.

    Yee doesn’t worry much about either crustaceans or fish eating the larvae. “That’s somewhat analogous to saying, well, we’re concerned about releasing buffalo back into the prairies of the Midwest because they might get eaten by lions,” he says. Crawfish and fish, he notes, don’t naturally inhabit the small containers of still water where Ae. aegypti mosquitoes breed.

    Still, new mosquito-fighting options are springing up: Radiation techniques might become precise enough to sterilize males but leave them attractive enough to fool females into pointless mating. And researchers are developing other genetic ways to weaponize mosquitoes against their own kind.

    One technique that uses no GM wizardry just infects mosquitoes with Wolbachia bacteria that make biting unlikely to spread dengue. The latest data from Mexico and Columbia suggest this infection “could be effective in the southern U.S. and across the Caribbean,” says biologist Scott O’Neil, based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, founder of the World Mosquito Program.

    He has no plans for working in the United States but is instead focusing on places with much worse dengue problems. His version of the Wolbachia strategy just makes bites less dangerous (SN: 6/29/12). The mosquito population doesn’t shrink or grow less bloodthirsty, so this approach might not appeal to Floridians anyway. More

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    Rivers might not be as resilient to drought as once thought

    Rivers ravaged by a lengthy drought may not be able to recover, even after the rains return. Seven years after the Millennium drought baked southeastern Australia, a large fraction of the region’s rivers still show no signs of returning to their predrought water flow, researchers report in the May 14 Science.

    There’s “an implicit assumption that no matter how big a disturbance is, the water will always come back — it’s just a matter of how long it takes,” says Tim Peterson, a hydrologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “I’ve never been satisfied with that.”

    The years-long drought in southeastern Australia, which began sometime between 1997 and 2001 and lasted until 2010, offered a natural experiment to test this assumption, he says. “It wasn’t the most severe drought” the region has ever experienced, but it was the longest period of low rainfall in the region since about 1900.

    Peterson and colleagues analyzed annual and seasonal streamflow rates in 161 river basins in the region from before, during and after the drought. By 2017, they found, 37 percent of those river basins still weren’t seeing the amount of water flow that they had predrought. Furthermore, of those low-flow rivers, the vast majority — 80 percent — also show no signs that they might recover in the future, the team found.

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    Many of southeastern Australia’s rivers had bounced back from previous droughts, including a severe but brief episode in 1983. But even heavy rains in 2010, marking the end of the Millennium drought, weren’t enough to return these basins to their earlier state. That suggests that there is, after all, a limit to rivers’ resilience.

    What’s changed in these river basins isn’t yet clear, Peterson says. The precipitation post drought was similar to predrought precipitation, and the water isn’t ending up in the streamflow, so it must be going somewhere else. The team examined various possibilities: The water infiltrated into the ground and was stored as groundwater, or it never made it to the ground at all — possibly intercepted by leaves, and then evaporating back to the air.

    But none of these explanations were borne out by studies of these sites, the researchers report. The remaining, and most probable, possibility is that the environment has changed: Water is evaporating from soils and transpiring from plants more quickly than it did predrought.

    Peterson has long suggested that under certain conditions rivers might not, in fact, recover — and this study confirms that theoretical work, says Peter Troch, a hydrologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Enhanced soil evaporation and plant transpiration are examples of such positive feedbacks, processes that can enhance the impacts of a drought. “Until his work, this lack of resilience was not anticipated, and all hydrological models did not account for such possibility,” Troch says.

    “This study will definitely inspire other researchers to undertake such work,” he notes. “Hopefully we can gain more insight into the functioning of [river basins’] response to climate change.”

    Indeed, the finding that rivers have “finite resilience” to drought is of particular concern as the planet warms and lengthier droughts become more likely, writes hydrologist Flavia Tauro in a commentary in the same issue of Science. More

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    A common antibiotic slows a mysterious coral disease

    Slathering corals in a common antibiotic seems to temporarily soothe a mysterious tissue-eating disease, new research suggests.

    Just off Florida, a type of coral infected with stony coral tissue loss disease, or SCTLD, showed widespread improvement several months after being treated with amoxicillin, researchers report April 21 in Scientific Reports. While the deadly disease eventually reappeared, the results provide a spot of good news while scientists continue the search for what causes it.

    “The antibiotic treatments give the corals a break,” says Erin Shilling, a coral researcher at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. “It’s very good at halting the lesions it’s applied to.”

    Divers discovered SCTLD on reefs near Miami in 2014. Characterized by white lesions that rapidly eat away at coral tissue, the disease plagues nearly all of the Great Florida Reef, which spans 580 kilometers from St. Lucie Inlet in Marin County to Dry Tortugas National Park beyond the Florida Keys. In recent years, SCTLD has spread to reefs in the Caribbean (SN: 7/9/19).

    As scientists search for the cause, they are left to treat the lesions through trial and error. Two treatments that show promise involve divers applying a chlorinated epoxy or an amoxicillin paste to infected patches. “We wanted to experimentally assess these techniques to see if they’re as effective as people have been reporting anecdotally,” Shilling says.In April 2019, Shilling and colleagues identified 95 lesions on 32 colonies of great star coral (Montastraea cavernosa) off Florida’s east coast. The scientists dug trenches into the corals around the lesions to separate diseased tissue from healthy tissue, then filled the moats and covered the diseased patches with the antibiotic paste or chlorinated epoxy and monitored the corals over 11 months.

    Treatment with an amoxicillin paste (white bands, left) stopped a tissue-eating lesion from spreading over a great star coral colony up to 11 months later (right).E.N. Shilling, I.R. Combs and J.D. Voss/Scientific Reports 2021

    Within about three months of the treatment, some 95 percent of infected coral tissues treated with amoxicillin had healed. Meanwhile, only about 20 percent of infected tissue treated with chlorinated epoxy had healed in that time — no better than untreated lesions. 

    But a one-and-done treatment doesn’t stop new lesions from popping up over time, the team found. And some key questions remain unanswered, the scientists note, including how the treatment works on larger scales and what, if any, longer-term side effects the antibiotic could have on the corals and their surrounding environment.“Erin’s work is fabulous,” says Karen Neely, a marine biologist at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Neely and her colleagues see similar results in their two-year experiment at the Florida National Marine Sanctuary. The researchers used the same amoxicillin paste and chlorinated epoxy treatments on more than 2,300 lesions on upwards of 1,600 coral colonies representing eight species, including great star coral.Those antibiotic treatments were more than 95 percent effective across all species, Neely says. And spot-treating new lesions that popped up after the initial treatment appeared to stop corals from becoming reinfected over time. That study is currently undergoing peer-review in Frontiers in Marine Science.

    “Overall, putting these corals in this treatment program saves them,” Neely says. “We don’t get happy endings very often, so that’s a nice one.” More

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    Mangrove forests on the Yucatan Peninsula store record amounts of carbon

    Coastal mangrove forests are carbon storage powerhouses, tucking away vast amounts of organic matter among their submerged, tangled root webs.

    But even for mangroves, there is a “remarkable” amount of carbon stored in small pockets of forest growing around sinkholes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, researchers report May 5 in Biology Letters. These forests can stock away more than five times as much carbon per hectare as most other terrestrial forests.

    There are dozens of mangrove-lined sinkholes, or cenotes, on the peninsula. Such carbon storage hot spots could help nations or companies achieve carbon neutrality — in which the volume of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount of carbon sequestered away (SN: 1/31/20).

    At three cenotes, researchers led by Fernanda Adame, a wetland scientist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, collected samples of soil at depths down to 6 meters, and used carbon-14 dating to estimate how fast the soil had accumulated at each site. The three cenotes each had “massive” amounts of soil organic carbon, the researchers report, averaging about 1,500 metric tons per hectare. One site, Casa Cenote, stored as much as 2,792 metric tons per hectare.

    Mangrove roots make ideal traps for organic material. The submerged soils also help preserve carbon. As sea levels have slowly risen over the last 8,000 years, mangroves have kept pace, climbing atop sediment ported in from rivers or migrating inland. In the cave-riddled limestone terrain of the Yucatan Peninsula, there are no rivers to supply sediment. Instead, “the mangroves produce more roots to avoid drowning,” which also helps the trees climb upward more quickly, offering more space for organic matter to accumulate, Adame says.

    As global temperatures increase, sea levels may eventually rise too quickly for mangroves to keep up (SN: 6/4/20). Other, more immediate threats to the peninsula’s carbon-rich cenotes include groundwater pollution, expanding infrastructure, urbanization and tourism. More