Intensity scale for atmospheric rivers reveals global hot spots

Atmospheric rivers like those pummeling the West Coast now have a five-level intensity scale, which has enabled researchers to chart the global prevalence of these sinuous bands of storms. The scale, first developed in 2019 for the U.S. West Coast, classifies the events based on how long they last and how much moisture they transport from the tropics to higher latitudes, much as the hurricane scale ranks storms by their wind speeds. In a new study using 40 years of observations, scientists found the most extreme rivers—AR-5 on their scale—occur once every 2 or 3 years and are less likely to make landfall than weaker ones. But when the storms do hit, they tend not to penetrate inland and end up dumping all their moisture in coastal areas, causing major floods—like the AR-5 storm that hit Pakistan last year and the AR-4 storm that struck California in January. Hot spots for AR-5s include British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, northwestern Europe, and southern Chile. The research was published last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

Congress pursues COVID-19 origin

Researchers and lawmakers are waiting to see whether President Joe Biden will sign a bill finalized by Congress last week that would declassify more information from U.S. intelligence agencies about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden’s administration previously said four U.S. intelligence agencies lean toward a natural origin of the pandemic—a view shared by most outside scientific experts—whereas two favor a laboratory-leak explanation. Two others are undecided. The bill sent to Biden, approved unanimously by both chambers of Congress, asks the U.S. director of national intelligence (DNI) to “declassify any and all information” on potential links between the pandemic and the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. It would give the DNI 90 days to comply, while allowing the director to hold back information that would compromise intelligence sources. Even if the measure becomes law, some doubt it will reveal anything that will settle the contentious origin question.

Maternal, child death rates jump

Mortality rates for U.S. children, teenagers, and pregnant people grew strikingly in 2021, according to data published this week. The maternal mortality rate has nearly doubled since 2018, and increases in 2020 and 2021 for children and teens were the largest in decades. Maternal mortality is defined as deaths from pregnancy-related causes during pregnancy or within 6 weeks after. It grew from 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020 to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. The rate among Black mothers, 69.9 deaths per 100,000, was 2.6 times that of non-Hispanic white mothers. CDC did not give a reason for the growth, but other reports have cited COVID-19. Among children and teens ages 1 to 19, the mortality rate jumped by 8.3% in 2021 after growing by 10.7% in 2020, The Journal of the American Medical Association reported. The increase was driven by murders, suicides, and fatalities associated with traffic accidents and drug overdoses.

Removing race from genetics

Genomics researchers should not use race to describe a population’s genetic ancestry and instead should use terms carefully tailored for accuracy, a U.S. national academies panel said this week. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released the report after the National Institutes of Health requested information on how to describe populations in genomics studies. The panel’s report concludes that the notion that people belong to genetically distinct races is scientifically invalid. And it recommends using people’s ethnicity, such as Latino; geographic location, such as Japanese; or region of ancestry, such as African, only in certain cases. Researchers studying disparities in health care may want to use racial categories because they can serve as a proxy for people’s experience of structural racism in health settings, the panel said. Studies of disease genes or human evolution should describe populations mainly using “genetic similarity,” or how closely members’ genes are related to reference genomes drawn from certain populations, such as the Yoruba of Nigeria or Tuscans in Italy.

U.S. research reactor can restart

This week, regulators gave the go-ahead to restart a small U.S. research reactor, 2 years after an accident shut it down and cut almost by half the nation’s capacity to use neutrons to study materials. The February 2021 incident at the 20-megawatt, neutrongenerating reactor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, occurred when one of its 30 rodlike, uranium-filled fuel pins popped out of place, overheated, and partially melted. A trace amount of radiation escaped the building but did not jeopardize the public, NIST said. In August 2022, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and NIST agreed to procedural changes that would ensure the pins are always correctly latched. NRC now reports it is satisfied with NIST’s corrective actions. The reactor will power up slowly over several weeks.

High-risk pathogen labs mushroom

The number of labs with the containment features needed to study the most deadly known human pathogens is booming, raising risks of an accidental release or use by a terrorist, warns an analysis. Fifty-one biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs exist worldwide, roughly double the number a decade ago, says the Global BioLabs Report 2023, published this week by researchers at King’s College London and George Mason University. The report also documented 57 BSL-3 “plus” labs, many of which study animal pathogens. BSL-4 labs enable studies of threats such as the viruses that cause Ebola, and 18 more of the facilities are slated to open in coming years—most in Asian countries such as India and the Philippines that want them to bolster responses to local threats and future pandemics. But many countries lack strong methods to monitor such labs, the report’s authors say. They urge the World Health Organization to strengthen lab safety guidance and want individual countries to agree to outside audits to ensure their BSL-4 labs meet international standards.

Dance about materials wins prize

Twirling hand fans, catchy Lord of the Rings references, and 20 blue papier-mâché balloons helped illustrate a video about crystalline materials (metal-organic frameworks) that won Science’s long-running Dance Your Ph.D. contest this year. The video, put together by University of Oregon chemist Checkers Marshall, aimed to explain their thesis on the frameworks, which are made up of metal ions bound to molecules. Because of the materials’ porous nature, the frameworks can act like sponges and capture gases such as carbon dioxide. The dance video, in which the blue balloons stood in for ions, depicted how Marshall’s Ph.D. work aims to make these materials more effective for other applications, such as water filtration and nerve agent detoxification. Now in its 15th year, the contest received 28 entries from 12 countries. The overall champion receives $2500. Marshall’s video and other entries can be seen here.

China reworks R&D management

The Chinese government has unveiled a major shake-up of its science and technology bureaucracy, aiming for “self-reliance” in R&D. A restructuring plan approved on 13 March by the National People’s Congress creates a new, high-level Central Science and Technology Commission that will give the Communist Party greater control of broad R&D strategy while streamlining the role of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). Direct oversight of research deemed less critical to China’s development and global competitiveness will move from MOST to other agencies. The agriculture ministry, for example, will take over farm science. Many details have yet to be released, but the plan represents “the most radical change to [China’s] innovation system since the end of the Mao era,” says Richard Suttmeier, a political scientist retired from the University of Oregon.