News at a glance: Global warming, China’s COVID-19 deaths, and JWST’s exoplanet investigations – Science

CLIMATE SCIENCE

In 2022, Earth set new records for warming

Temperatures continued to rise at an alarming pace in 2022, which became the fifth- or sixth-hottest year in modern history, U.S. and European science agencies reported last week. Earth’s average recorded surface temperatures were some 1.2°C warmer than preindustrial times. Nearly 30 countries set individual all-time heat records, and some 850 million people experienced the warmest temperatures of their lives last year. As in 2021, the warming was suppressed by a persistent, multiyear La Niña cooling pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean, the agencies said. But La Niña is expected to wane this year, setting the stage for even higher temperatures. Meanwhile, the world’s oceans, which capture 90% of the excess heat from global warming and are less prone to short-term temperature fluctuations, again had their hottest year on record in 2022—as they have nearly every year since the 1990s.

PUBLIC HEALTH

China reports COVID-19 deaths

China’s government said last week that nearly 60,000 people have died after contracting COVID-19 since it abandoned its zero-COVID policy on 7 December 2022—a major departure from previous assertions, deemed not credible by outsiders, that fewer than 10 people per day died since the policy ended. The new tally includes hospitalized patients for whom COVID-19 was either the direct cause of death or a contributing factor, a National Health Commission official said at a 14 January press briefing. The average age of the deceased was 80, and more than 90% had underlying conditions. The official added that 300,000 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized and that infections are now tapering off.

POLITICS

Hungary protests funding freeze

Hungary has vowed to fight an EU decision to suspend millions of euros for research and higher education as part of an ongoing dispute about control of the country’s universities. In December 2022, the European Union notified the Hungarian government that it would exclude 21 of the country’s three dozen universities from the Horizon Europe research funding system and from the Erasmus program, which funds international student exchanges. The European Union says the universities’ oversight system, introduced by the current government, fails to meet EU standards because it allows politicians to sit on the schools’ governing bodies. Since 2021, Hungary has received roughly €60 million from Horizon Europe to fund nearly 200 projects, and in 2020, more than 20,000 Hungarian nationals received roughly €40 million in Erasmus grants. A government spokesperson said last week that Hungary would sue to reinstate the funding if ongoing negotiations fail.

WORKFORCE

Japan aims to boost Ph.D. jobs

Alarmed by the country’s sagging industrial prowess and a dearth of jobs for Ph.D. holders, the Japanese government will offer tax breaks for corporations hiring recent doctoral graduates. Starting in April, companies will be able to claim a corporate tax credit worth 20% of salaries and other costs associated with hiring researchers who’ve earned a Ph.D. within the past 5 years. To qualify, companies also have to boost the share of R&D salaries going to staff with a doctoral degree by at least 3% annually. Ph.D. holders face bleak job prospects in Japan. Companies prefer hiring people with master’s degrees and training them in-house, and the number of research positions at Japan’s publicly supported universities is effectively capped.

quotation mark

We also need Congress to pass a bill that codifies these protections into law, so they don’t fade away under a future presidency.

  • Jacob Carter of the Union of Concerned Scientists
  • about a scientific integrity policy unveiled last week by the Biden administration to safeguard U.S. government scientists from political meddling.
CONSERVATION

Reef sharks face extinction

Sharks living near coral reefs are nearly twice as likely to be threatened with extinction as sharks in general, according to a new analysis. Many shark species are overfished for their fins and meat, which led the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in November 2022 to regulate the exports of about 10% of all 1199 species of sharks and rays. Fifty-nine percent of the 134 species of reef-dwelling sharks and rays are in danger of extinction, primarily from overfishing but also from climate change and habitat degradation, researchers report this week in Nature Communications. They call for better enforcement of fisheries regulations and an increase in marine protected areas.

#METOO

Court nixes defamation verdict

An appeals court in Peru has nullified a lower court’s verdict against archaeologist Marcela Poirier, who was convicted of defamation after publicly accusing prominent archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters of sexual harassment. Castillo Butters had sued Poirier after she reported on Facebook that Castillo Butters’s employer, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, had found evidence of harassment. In May 2021, Poirier was given a $48,400 fine and a 20-month suspended jail sentence, which she appealed. The appeals court ordered a retrial after finding that the proceedings were “plagued with irregularities,” according to Poirier’s lawyer. Castillo Butters did not respond to requests for comment.

ASTRONOMY

JWST glimpses its first exoplanet

NASA’s JWST orbiting observatory has made its first discovery of a previously unknown planet around another star and is searching for its atmosphere. The newly discovered world, dubbed LHS 475 b, is almost exactly Earth-size. Other scopes can parse the atmospheres of gas giants from starlight passing through, but the atmospheres of small rocky exoplanets present a much harder challenge; researchers hope JWST will help crack it. The discoverers of LHS 475 b told the American Astronomical Society last week they will need more observations to pinpoint whether it has an atmosphere, and if so, its composition.

PHYSICS

Laser guides lightning

a laser pointing into the sky
A mountaintop laser was fired 1000 times per second to create a channel that guided a lightning bolt.TRUMPF/MARTIN STOLLBERG

Like the Greek god Zeus aiming thunderbolts, physicists working on a mountaintop in Switzerland have used a high-power laser to steer lightning toward a 124-meter-tall radio tower. The advance marks the culmination of decades of efforts to show that a laser can drill an ionized channel through the atmosphere that provides a path of least resistance for lightning to follow. The research team steered the bolt over the final 50 meters before impact. The finding, reported this week in Nature Photonics, could open the way to using lasers to create “virtual lightning rods” that protect rocket launchpads and other sensitive infrastructure by preemptively draining away the threat. The technique could shield an area larger than that covered by conventional lightning rods, the researchers say. For most applications, however, the multimillion-dollar laser system likely won’t replace those humble and far less costly devices.

DEMOGRAPHY

China’s population starts to fall

It’s official: China’s population has started to shrink, a turning point that could herald major economic challenges. In 2022, the number of Chinese residents—excluding those of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan—fell by 850,000 people to 1.4 billion, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced this week. The drop, the country’s first since the 1960s, was computed before the current wave of COVID-19 deaths began and may have been accelerated by couples deciding against having children during the pandemic. Demographers had long predicted the decline and expect it to be a long-term trend. China’s birth rate has fallen for years, even after the government ended its one-child policy in 2016, and is now among the world’s lowest. One reason is the large-scale migration to cities, where raising children is expensive, demographers say.

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