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Starfish have eyes on the tips of each arm

Julie Bedford, NOAA PA

Not to creep you out and completely ruin the aquarium forever or anything, but starfish have eyes -- teeny tiny half-millimeter eyes -- on the tips of their arms! Apparently scientists have known this for a long time, but I did not. What scientists did not know for sure (but have just confirmed) is that starfish actually use these eyes to see. Which means, most likely, they can see in every direction, all at once.

But don't worry, humans, we've still got an edge, Ed Yong reports at National Geographic:

However, its vision is rather poor. It’s colour-blind, and sees the world only in shades of light and dark. Its light-detecting cells work very slowly, so fast-moving objects are invisible to it. And it has poor spatial resolution, so it can’t see fine detail.

Read more: Living


Check out this shocking map of California’s drought

Click to embiggen.
NASA GRACE Data Assimilation
Click to embiggen.

While the country's appetite for extreme weather news was filled (to the brim) this week by the polar vortex, spare a thought for sunny California, where exceptionally dry weather is provoking fears of a long, tough summer ahead.

The state is facing what could be its worst drought in four decades. The chart above, released by the National Drought Mitigation Center on Monday, shows just how dry the soil is compared to the historical average: the lighter the color, the more "normal" the current wetness of the soil; the darker the color, the rarer. You can see large swathes of California are bone dry.

Read more: Climate & Energy


One benefit to this horrible cold snap: It could be killing invasive insects

Forest Service

As temperatures have gotten, on average, warmer and cold snaps like this one have gotten less frequent, certain insects have traveled north and invaded ecosystems not designed to fend them off. But this year, trees all over America have been granted a reprieve from invasive insects by the polar air. The New York Times reports that hordes of these insects probably just died in the cold, and entomologists are partying on their graves.

Seriously. Turns out, under the right conditions, entomologist can be kind of vicious:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Climate change has an unlikely foe: The humble mushroom

Red Junasun

Ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal (EEM) fungi can soak up 70 percent more carbon than other ’shrooms, keeping all that carbon outta the atmosphere. Now THAT’s a magic mushroom!

A gaggle of researchers just pitted 200 dirt samples against each other to see which held the most carbon, and soil with EEM fungi won. Basically, EEM fungi suck up nitrogen from soil, stealing it away from soil microbes and giving it to grateful plants. Then stuff can’t decompose as quickly, so the soil retains carbon instead of putting it out into the atmosphere. EEM fungi slurp nitrogen faster than most fungi -- including arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, which are way more common.

The findings have some seriously good implications for climate change:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Pesticide in frozen food sickens hundreds in Japan

frozen pizza
Rebecca Siegel

Some of the food that's been sold out of freezers in Japan recently has had a strange smell to it -- a fishy odor that has nothing to do with seafood.

It's the smell of malathion, an insecticide.

More than 1,000 people have been sickened so far by eating frozen foods laced with the pesticide, according to some media reports. From the BBC:


Wind power kept the heaters working in Texas


Wind power helped Texas avoid blackouts as residents and businesses turned on their heaters this week amid plummeting temperatures and dwindling electricity supplies.

On Monday morning, wind turbines provided 1,800 megawatts of the 56,000 megawatts of power available in most of Texas -- which was just enough to avoid outages after several fossil-fuel power plants shut down due to weather-related problems.

But in an odd twist, that wind-based salvation has led some to complain that the Lone Star State is too dependent on the clean energy source.


White House smacks down climate deniers in new video

John Holdren video

If you pay just a little attention to what scientists say, it shouldn't be too hard to understand how freezing conditions across North America can be linked to climate change. As polar temperatures rise faster than equatorial temperatures, jet streams that hold weather conditions in their rightful places are weakening. And that can help the frigid Arctic cyclone known as the polar vortex slip deeper into North America. Weakening jet streams linked to global warming were also connected last year to floods in Colorado and Alberta, unseasonable heat in Alaska, and unseasonable cold in Florida.

Of course, some conservatives have been putting on their dunces' hats and desperately wielding the recent cold snap as evidence that the globe is not warming, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. (Climate denialism is rampant among those who disregard science and prefer to guess at what makes the world work -- which explains why the climate-denying prime ministers of Australia and Canada are dismantling their nations' scientific institutions.)

Jon Stewart ridiculed the silliness earlier this week with his trademark sense of humor, and now the White House has entered the fray. Instead of using humor, President Barack Obama's science advisor, John Holdren, used his exceptional grasp of science to coolly smack down climate deniers in a video posted on Wednesday.


Protesters are super-gluing themselves to fracking sites now

Bad news for Brits: The U.K. government announced last month that companies will be able to frack on two-thirds of British soil. (The announcement promises job creation, meeting the country’s gas needs, you know the drill.) But protesters aren’t having it. And they're forgoing the traditional handcuffs and expressing their disapproval using an appropriately modern, chemical-based method: superglue.

In the past week, three women super-glued themselves to objects at fracking test site Barton Moss to protest the announcement. One of them even dressed up like Where’s Waldo (although, fun fact, they call him Wally over there):


Last Thursday, this 21-year-old glued herself to the gate at Barton Moss. She managed to delay fracking trucks’ departure for two hours, after which she was arrested and other protesters marched by the trucks as they left. Unfortunately she also, uh, ate some of the glue (!), but it sounds like she’s OK.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Rush Limbaugh says liberals invented the polar vortex

Radio show host Limbaugh speaks at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington
Micah Walter, Reuters

UGH. It’s soooo cold outside in SOME places right now that I’m scared, y’all. This temporary cold snap means it’ll NEVER be hot anywhere ever again. Plus, it totally invalidates decades of warming temperatures, shrinking ice, and rising sea levels in one fell swoop! What are we gonna dooooo?!? I know, let’s give it a sexy name like “polar vortex” to ... distract people or something!

So goes Rush Limbaugh’s opinion of liberals, us crafty devils who are trying to spin subzero temps to fit our wily, thoroughly proven by science wackadoo schemes. (That guy! What a gem, right?) As he said on Monday:

We are having a record-breaking cold snap in many parts of the country. And right on schedule the media have to come up with a way to make it sound like it’s completely unprecedented. Because they’ve got to find a way to attach this to the global warming agenda, and they have. It’s called the “polar vortex.” The dreaded polar vortex.

Do you know what the polar vortex is? Have you ever heard of it? Well, they just created it for this week …They’re in the middle of a hoax, they’re perpetrating a hoax, but they’re relying on their total dominance of the media to lie to you each and every day about climate change and global warming ...

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters

Grist / Shutterstock / Giuseppe Arcimboldo

About a third of the way through this series on GMOs, after a particularly angry conflagration broke out on Twitter, I asked my wife, Beth, if I could tell her what had happened. I was hoping to exorcise those digital voices from my head. Someone had probably accused me of crimes against humanity, shoddy journalism, and stealing teddy bears from children -- I forget the details, thank goodness. But I remember Beth’s response.

“No offense,” she said, “but who cares?”

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

I know that to those embroiled in the controversy this will seem preposterous. Let me try to explain.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment: Imagine two alternate futures, one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side “won” the debate.

Read more: Food, Living