Forest fires should be included in carbon emission accounting system: Chinese scientists

Chinese scientists urged the world to establish a comprehensive carbon accounting system that includes natural processes, especially extreme forest fires, as international delegates are gathering in Dubai to find a deal that will make a real difference in tackling the planet's climate issues at the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28), according to the Shenyang-based Institute of Applied Ecology (IAE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), on Thursday at a press conference on a blue paper on the carbon emissions of forest fires.

Led by the Institute of Applied Ecology, and jointly compiled by the Institute of Earth Environment and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the CAS, the document points out that, from 2001 to 2022, the annual average area of forest burned globally was 46.95 million hectares, which is 11 times the annual average increase in artificial forest area during the same period.

During this period, the total carbon dioxide emissions from global forest fires reached 33.9 billion tons, which could increase atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by 4.35 ppm (parts per million), the blue paper said.

Forest fires are a common disturbance in forest ecosystems, significantly affecting the composition, structure and succession characteristics of forests, thereby altering the material cycling and energy flow of forest ecosystems, said Xu Wenru, a researcher at the IAE and one of the lead authors of the blue paper.

Extreme forest fires have become more frequent in recent years, mainly due to climate change and human activities, leading to an increase in global carbon emissions, according to the blue paper.

"Our study has proven that the amount of emissions from forest fires is huge, so we think it is necessary to include forest fire carbon emissions into a carbon emission accounting system. On the other hand, once established, such a comprehensive accounting system will help urge related governments enhance prevention and management of extreme forest fires," Zhu Jiaojun, director of IAE, told the Global Times.

In terms of the impact of climate change and human activities on extreme forest fires, Zhu noted that these three elements are connected. He called for further scientific research and more international cooperation on fire carbon emissions.

Taking the extreme forest fires in Canada in 2023 as an example, the blue paper points out that direct carbon dioxide emissions from this fire exceeded 1.5 billion tons, higher than the total carbon dioxide emissions from forest fires in Canada over the past 22 years (1.374 billion tons). "This severely weakened the carbon sink function of forest ecosystems," Xu noted.

According to the blue paper, from May to August, the forest fires in Canada emitted a total of 10.02 million tons of PM2.5, causing environmental pollution not only in Canada but also significantly affecting air quality in large areas of the Northern Hemisphere.

The blue paper also presented significant spatial differences in global forest fire carbon dioxide emissions, with the carbon emissions from high-latitude coniferous forest areas in the Northern Hemisphere showing a rapid increasing trend. Between 2001 and 2022, Africa witnessed the largest areas that had been burned each year (33.32 million hectares), followed by Southern America (5.18 million hectares) and Asia (5.12 million hectares).

China's forest area accounts for 5.4 percent of the global total forest, but its carbon emissions from forest fires only account for 0.65 percent of the global total for forest fire emissions, significantly lower than the global average, the blue paper noted. From 2001 to 2022, China's carbon emissions from forest fires showed a significant downward trend, with annual average carbon dioxide emissions of 10 million tons.

China has adhered to the policy of "prevention as the primary focus, combining prevention and control." The country has also established an effective forest fire warning and monitoring system, and a comprehensive fire prevention network. Thanks to the efforts of the whole society, both the frequency and the burned area of forest fires have been declining since 2001, according to Xu.

Georgia: Ambassador attends the 5th China-CEEC SME Cooperation Forum

Georgian Ambassador to China Archil Kalandia participated in the 5th China-CEEC SME Cooperation Forum held in Cangzhou, North China's Hebei Province on Monday, with a total of more than 600 Chinese and Central and Eastern European enterprises participating in the forum. During the meeting, Ambassador Kalandia met with China's Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li. 

Ambassador Kalandia reiterated his desire for the Georgian side to be granted the status of observer state in the mechanism of cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC). Deng expressed his support for the ambassador's cause. The two sides will continue to hold consultations with the countries of Eastern and Central Europe on the above-mentioned issues.

Deng said that the strengthening of cooperation between small and medium-size enterprises (SME) in China and Central and Eastern European countries is of great practical significance. We should further buttress our development strategies, expand cooperation in areas such as green development and digital transformation, and create new growth points through innovative ways of cooperation, he said at the forum. 

Launched in 2012, the China-CEEC Cooperation Mechanism is a platform for cross-regional cooperation between China and European countries to promote the deepening of economic and trade cooperation between China and Europe.

Remnants of Earth’s original crust preserve time before plate tectonics

Not all of the newborn Earth’s surface has been lost to time. Transformed bits of this rocky material remain embedded in the hearts of continents, new research suggests. These lingering remnants hint that full-fledged plate tectonics, the movements of large plates of Earth’s outer shell, began relatively late in the planet’s history, researchers report in the March 17 Science.

These revelations come from ancient continental rock in Canada that preserves geochemical traces of the even older, 4.2-billion-year-old rock from which it formed. “For the first time, we can say something about what kind of rock was a precursor to the first continental crust,” says study coauthor Jonathan O’Neil, a geochemist at the University of Ottawa.
Earth began as a molten ball around 4.54 billion years ago, and over the next tens of millions of years, its surface cooled and solidified. Almost all of Earth’s early rocky surface has been destroyed and recycled by geologic processes such as plate tectonics. The oldest known unaltered bits of the planet aren’t rocks but tiny zircon crystals formed nearly 4.4 billion years ago (SN Online: 2/23/14). The oldest actual rocks date back to only about 4 billion years. “We’re missing a lot of Earth’s history,” O’Neil says.

The new discovery fills in some of that history. In northeastern Canada, along the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay, O’Neil and geochemist Richard Carlson of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., discovered 2.7-billion-year-old continental rocks that hinted at something much older. The rocks contain an unusually large abundance of an isotope of neodymium that formed only during the first few hundred million years of Earth’s history. To have so much of this neodymium, the rocks must have formed from material that was first created more than 4.2 billion years ago, the researchers calculate. That’s far older than the oldest rocks ever studied.

Based on the composition of the Canadian rocks, the researchers think that the precursor material was similar to the crust that underlies modern oceans. The finding affirms previous studies that suggested that the first continental crust arose from the partial melting of oceanic crust (SN Online: 9/20/16).

But unlike modern oceanic crust, which typically lingers for less than 200 million years before getting recycled into Earth’s interior by plate tectonics, the precursor crust survived for more than a billion years before being reworked into continental crust 2.7 billion years ago. Plate tectonics during the precursor crust’s life span must have therefore been nonexistent, sluggish or limited to certain regions, O’Neil concludes.

“If you ask five geologists the simple question of when did plate tectonics start, you’ll have answers from 4.3 billion years ago to 1 billion years ago,” he says. The new finding seems to rule out the idea that full-blown, global plate tectonics began early in Earth’s history.

The new work is exciting and sheds light on the processes that set the scene for Earth’s subsequent evolution and habitability, says geologist Tony Kemp of the University of Western Australia in Crawley. Other vestiges of early crust may lurk undiscovered elsewhere on Earth as well, he says. “It will be intriguing to see how this [research] unfolds with future studies of this type.”

Anatomy analysis suggests new dinosaur family tree

The standard dinosaur family tree may soon be just a relic.

After examining more than 400 anatomical traits, scientists have proposed a radical reshuffling of the major dinosaur groups. The rewrite, reported in the March 23 Nature, upsets century-old ideas about dinosaur evolution. It lends support to the accepted idea that the earliest dinosaurs were smallish, two-legged creatures. But contrary to current thinking, the new tree suggests that these early dinosaurs had grasping hands and were omnivores, snapping up meat and plant matter alike.
“This is a novel proposal and a really interesting hypothesis,” says Randall Irmis, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Utah and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Irmis, who was not involved with the work, says it’s “a possibility” that the new family tree reflects actual dinosaur relationships. But, he says, “It goes against our ideas of the general relationships of dinosaurs. It’s certainly going to generate a lot of discussion.”

The accepted tree of dinosaur relationships has three dominant branches, each containing critters familiar even to the non–dinosaur obsessed. One branch leads to the “bird-hipped” ornithischians, which include the plant-eating duckbills, stegosaurs and Triceratops and its bony-frilled kin. Another branch contains the “reptile-hipped” saurischians, which are further divided into two groups: the plant-eating sauropods (typically four-legged, like Brontosaurus) and the meat-eating theropods (typically two-legged, like Tyrannosaurus rex and modern birds).
This split between the bird-hipped and reptile-hipped dinos was first proposed in 1887 by British paleontologist Harry Seeley, who had noticed the two strikingly different kinds of pelvic anatomy. That hypothesis of dinosaur relationships was formalized and strengthened in the 1980s and has been accepted since then.

The new tree yields four groups atop two main branches. The bird-hipped ornithischians, which used to live on their own lone branch, now share a main branch with the reptile-hipped theropods like T. rex. This placement suggests these once-distant cousins are actually closely related. It also underscores existing questions about the bird-hipped dinos, an oddball group with murky origins; they appear late in the dinosaur fossil record and then are everywhere. Some scientists have suggested that they evolved from an existing group of dinosaurs, perhaps similarly herbivorous sauropods. But by placing the bird-hipped dinos next to the theropods, the tree hints that the late-to-the-party vegetarian weirdos could have evolved from their now close relatives, the meat-eating theropods.

Sauropods (like Brontosaurus) are no longer next to the theropods but now reside on a branch with the meat-eating herrerasaurids. Herrerasaurids are a confusing group of creatures that some scientists think belong near the other meat eaters, the theropods, while others say the herrerasaurids are not quite dinosaurs at all.

The new hypothesis of relationships came about when researchers led by Matthew Baron, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge and Natural History Museum in London, decided to do a wholesale examination of dinosaur anatomy with fresh eyes. Using a mix of fossils, photographs and descriptions from the scientific literature, Baron and colleagues surveyed the anatomy of more than 70 different dinosaurs and non-dino close relatives, examining 457 anatomical features. The presence, absence and types of features, which include the shape of a hole on the snout, a cheekbone ridge and braincase anatomy, were fed into a computer program, generating a family tree that groups animals that share specialized features.

In this new interpretation of dinosaur anatomy and the resulting tree, many of the earliest dinosaurs have grasping hands and a mix of meat-eating and plant-eating teeth. If the earliest dinos were really omnivores, given the relationships in the new four-pronged tree, the evolution of specialized diets (vegetarians and meat eaters) each happened twice in the dinosaur lineage.

When the researchers saw the resulting tree, “We were very surprised — and cautious,” Baron says. “It’s a big change that flies in the face of 130 years of thinking.”

The arrangement of the new tree stuck even when the researchers fiddled around with their descriptions of various features, Baron says. The close relationship between the bird-hipped, plant-eating ornithischians and the reptile-hipped, meat-eating theropods, for example, isn’t based on one or two distinctive traits but on 21 small details.

“The lesson is that dinosaur groups aren’t characterized by radical new inventions,” says paleontologist Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley. “The relationships are read in the minutiae, not big horns and frills.” That said, Padian, whose assessment of the research also appears in Nature, isn’t certain that the new tree reflects reality. Such trees are constructed based on how scientists interpret particular anatomical features, decisions that will surely be quibbled with. “The devil is in the details,” Padian says. “These guys have done their homework and now everyone’s going to have to roll up their sleeves and start checking their work.”

When coal replaces a cleaner energy source, health is on the line

Where I grew up in Tennessee, a coal-fired power plant perches by the river, just down from the bridge that my wild brothers and their friends would jump off in the summer. Despite the proximity, I never thought too much about the power plant and the energy it was churning out.

But then I read an April 3 Nature Energy paper on coal-fired energy production that used my town — and others in the Tennessee Valley Authority area — as a natural experiment. The story the data tell is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, and arrives at a politically prescient time. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has signaled a shift in energy policy back toward the fossil fuel.

The roots of this story were planted in the 1930s, when the TVA was created as a New Deal project to help haul America out of the Great Depression. The organization soon got into the power business, relying on a mix of energy sources: hydropower, coal and nuclear. After the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island — a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania — stricter regulations driven by public fear prompted TVA to shut down its two nuclear reactors. Those temporary closures in 1985 left a gaping hole in the region’s energy production, a need immediately filled by coal.

Economist Edson Severnini realized that this dramatic shift from nuclear to coal offered a chance to study the effects of coal-fired power on health. He analyzed power production, particle pollution and medical records of babies born near coal plants. One in particular picked up the most slack: Paradise Fossil Plant in Paradise, Ky. (Incidentally, that town is the same coal-ravaged one John Prine sings about in arguably the best song ever written.) The plant’s power production increased by about 27 percent, replacing about a quarter of the missing nuclear energy.

Not surprisingly, air pollution near the Paradise plant rose, Severnini found. The levels of an air pollution indicator called total suspended particulate fell below the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit at the time (but wouldn’t have passed today’s tougher standards, Severnini says). Still, babies born near the plant in the 18 months after the nuclear shutdowns in 1985 were about 5 percent smaller than babies born in the 18 months before. No difference in birth weight showed up in babies born near other power plants that didn’t change their output (including my town’s).
That 5 percent difference was “really, really surprising,” says Severnini, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Studies have linked low birth weight to trouble later in life, including a lower IQ, lower earnings and health problems, particularly heart disease.
UCLA environmental epidemiologist Beate Ritz puts that 5 percent drop in context. “These coal-fired power plants coming online can be compared with a pregnant woman smoking one pack of cigarettes a day,” she says. “That’s pretty bad.”

Ritz, who studies the hazards of air pollution in Los Angeles, points out that it’s not just the lowest birth weight babies affected. The whole curve of birth weights shifted, so that in all likelihood, most babies born there were impacted in some way. “There’s only a small percent in the upper end of the curve that is unaffected,” she says. “Everybody else has probably some kind of subtle effect that you can’t measure on their brain development, on their lung development, on their immune system.”

The study compares nuclear energy to coal. But the issue is far more complex than that, Severnini says. He hopes the example he found will serve as a reminder of how all energy decisions come with complex trade-offs. “Any energy production choice we make has costs and benefits, and we need to weigh them fully.”

The TVA case study fits with many other examples of how coal pollution can harm health, says Bernard Goldstein, a physician and environmental public health expert at University of Pittsburgh. “We should get rid of particulates, and coal contributes to that,” he says.

U.S. dependence on coal is ebbing, in part because natural gas is cheap right now. But coal isn’t dead yet. “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” President Donald Trump said March 28, before he signed an executive order that lifted the ban on coal leases on federal land. He also aims to lift other restrictions that affect the coal industry. It’s not yet clear how — or whether —those policies will be enacted, or whether they’ll be enough to revive the coal industry. (Tellingly, the Paradise plant plans to shut down two of its three coal-burning units as it shifts to natural gas.)

“If the president gets his way, this would slow [coal’s descent] down,” says Goldstein, who coauthored a March 23 New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece on why the Trump administration should pay attention to environmental science. Goldstein likens the situation to government efforts to discourage teenage smoking, a trend that’s also decreasing. Just because the numbers are already falling doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hasten that drop, he says.

And unlike exposure to other pollutants like cigarette smoke, air isn’t optional. “You don’t have a choice,” Ritz notes. We are all breathing the air that’s around us, whether we are in Paradise or not.

Six-month-old babies know words for common things, but struggle with similar nouns

Around the six-month mark, babies start to get really fun. They’re not walking or talking, but they are probably babbling, grabbing and gumming, and teaching us about their likes and dislikes. I remember this as the time when my girls’ personalities really started making themselves known, which, really, is one of the best parts of raising a kid. After months of staring at those beautiful, bald heads, you start to get a glimpse of what’s going on inside them.

When it comes to learning language, it turns out that a lot has already happened inside those baby domes by age 6 months. A new study finds that babies this age understand quite a bit about words — in particular, the relationships between nouns.
Work in toddlers, and even adults, reveals that people can struggle with word meanings under difficult circumstances. We might briefly falter with “shoe” when an image of a shoe is shown next to a boot, for instance, but not when the shoe appears next to a hat. But researchers wanted to know how early these sorts of word relationships form.

Psychologists Elika Bergelson of Duke University and Richard Aslin, formerly of the University of Rochester in New York and now at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Conn., put 51 6-month-olds to a similar test. Outfitted with eye-tracking gear, the babies sat on a parent’s lap and looked at a video screen that showed pairs of common objects. Sometimes the images were closely related: mouth and nose, for instance, or bottle and spoon. Other pairs were unrelated: blanket and dog, or juice and car.

When both objects were on the screen, the parents would say a sentence using one of the words: “Where is the nose?” for instance. If babies spent more time looking at the nose than the other object, researchers inferred that the babies had a good handle on that word.

When the babies were shown tricky pairs of closely related objects, like a cup of juice and a cup of milk, the babies spent nearly equal time looking at both pictures, no matter what word their parents said. But when the images were really distinct (juice and car, for instance) the babies spent more time looking at the spoken word.
These babies detected a difference between the “milk-juice” pair and the “juice-car” pair, recognizing that one pair is similar and the other isn’t, the researchers conclude November 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To see whether this ability was tied to domestic life, the researchers sent the babies home with specialized gear: vests with audio recorders and adorable hats outfitted with small video cameras, one just above each ear. A camera on a tripod in a corner of the home also captured snippets of daily life. The resulting video and audio recordings revealed that babies whose caregivers used more nouns for objects in the room were better at the word task in the lab.

That means that babies learn words well when they can actually see the object being talked about. Hearing, “Open your mouth. Here comes the spoon!” as they watch the spoon come flying toward their face makes a bigger vocabulary impression than “Did you like riding in the car yesterday?”

A similar idea came from a recent study on preschoolers. These kids learned best when they saw one picture at a time (or when parents pointed at the relevant object). Babies — and older kids, too — like to see what you’re talking about.

The results are too early to provide advice to parents, says Bergelson, a cognitive and developmental psychologist. “But I think one thing suggested by our work is that parents should consider their young baby to be a real conversational partner,” she says. “Even young infants are listening and learning about words and the world around them before they start talking themselves, and their caregivers make that possible.”

There’s still lots to figure out about how babies soak up vocabulary. And as scientists come up with more ways to peer into the mysterious inner workings of a baby’s mind, those answers might lead to even more interesting conversations with our babies.

Tree rings tell tale of drought in Mongolia over the last 2,000 years

A new analysis is shedding light on drought in Mongolia, both past and future.

By studying the rings of semifossilized trees, researchers constructed a climate history for the semiarid Asian nation spanning the last 2,060 years — going 1,000 years further back than previous studies.

It was suspected that a harsh drought from about 2000 to 2010 that killed tens of thousands of livestock was unprecedented in the region’s history and primarily the result of human-caused climate change. But the tree ring data show that the dry spell, while rare in its severity, was not outside the realm of natural climate variability, researchers report online March 14 in Science Advances.
“This is a part of the world where we don’t know about the past climate,” says Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., who was not involved with the study. “Having this record is a great resource for trying to understand past droughts in the region.”

In recent years, many studies have sought to unsnarl the role of anthropogenic climate change from natural variability on extreme weather events (SN: 1/20/18, p. 6). Such work is necessary for more accurately predicting future climate trends and helping governments prepare for the most severe scenarios, says study coauthor Amy Hessl, a physical geographer at West Virginia University in Morgantown. This is especially true in countries like Mongolia that lack certain infrastructure, such as enough water reservoirs, to ease the impact of events like prolonged drought.

Hessl and her colleagues studied tree rings in hundreds of samples of Siberian pines, well-preserved by Mongolia’s naturally dry climate. A ring’s width indicates how much the tree grew in a year. In wet years, the rings are wider; in dry years, skinnier.
The recent dry spell was the severest in recorded history. But the rings showed that an even more severe drought took place around the year 800, long before anthropogenic climate change began.

Still, computer simulations suggest that about a third of the recent drought’s severity could have been caused by elevated temperatures linked to climate change, the researchers found. The finding is consistent with studies on how climate change has affected other recent droughts in South Africa and California.

Using computer simulations, Hessl and her colleagues conclude that droughts in coming decades may not be any worse than those seen in Mongolia’s past. The team predicts that as global temperatures rise over the next century, Mongolia will first become drier, then wetter. Increased heat initially will dry out the plains. But at a certain point, hot air holds more moisture, leading to increased precipitation.

Those climate patterns will likely guide how Mongolia develops, Hessl says, because they have in the past. In 2014, she and colleagues published a paper detailing how a 15-year period of unprecedented temperate and rainy conditions in 13th century Mongolia may have led to the rise of Genghis Khan (SN Online: 3/10/14).

Here’s how olivine may trigger deep earthquakes

Cocooned within the bowels of the Earth, one mineral’s metamorphosis into another may trigger some of the deepest earthquakes ever detected.

These cryptic tremors — known as deep-focus earthquakes — are a seismic conundrum. They violently rupture at depths greater than 300 kilometers, where intense temperatures and pressures are thought to force rocks to flow smoothly. Now, experiments suggest that those same hellish conditions might also sometimes transform olivine — the primary mineral in Earth’s mantle — into the mineral wadsleyite. This mineral switch-up can destabilize the surrounding rock, enabling earthquakes at otherwise impossible depths, mineral physicist Tomohiro Ohuchi and colleagues report September 15 in Nature Communications.
“It’s been a real puzzle for many scientists because earthquakes shouldn’t occur deeper than 300 kilometers,” says Ohuchi, of Ehime University in Matsuyama, Japan.

Deep-focus earthquakes usually occur at subduction zones where tectonic plates made of oceanic crust — rich in olivine — plunge toward the mantle (SN: 1/13/21). Since the quakes’ seismic waves lose strength during their long ascent to the surface, they aren’t typically dangerous. But that doesn’t mean the quakes aren’t sometimes powerful. In 2013, a magnitude 8.3 deep-focus quake struck around 609 kilometers below the Sea of Okhotsk, just off Russia’s eastern coast.

Past studies hinted that unstable olivine crystals could spawn deep quakes. But those studies tested other minerals that were similar in composition to olivine but deform at lower pressures, Ohuchi says, or the experiments didn’t strain samples enough to form faults.

He and his team decided to put olivine itself to the test. To replicate conditions deep underground, the researchers heated and squeezed olivine crystals up to nearly 1100° Celsius and 17 gigapascals. Then the team used a mechanical press to further compress the olivine slowly and monitored the deformation.

From 11 to 17 gigapascals and about 800° to 900° C, the olivine recrystallized into thin layers containing new wadsleyite and smaller olivine grains. The researchers also found tiny faults and recorded bursts of sound waves — indicative of miniature earthquakes. Along subducting tectonic plates, many of these thin layers grow and link to form weak regions in the rock, upon which faults and earthquakes can initiate, the researchers suggest.

“The transformation really wreaks havoc with the [rock’s] mechanical stability,” says geophysicist Pamela Burnley of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was not involved in the research. The findings help confirm that olivine transformations are enabling deep-focus earthquakes, she says.

Next, Ohuchi’s team plans to experiment on olivine at even higher pressures to gain insights into the mineral’s deformation at greater depths.

A new dark matter experiment quashed earlier hints of new particles

Potential hints of weird new particles in a dark matter detector have evaporated with new data.

Following up on a beguiling result from its predecessor experiment, the XENONnT experiment found no sign of extra blips that could point to new particles or another phenomenon, scientists report July 22 in Vienna at the International Conference on Identification of Dark Matter.

The XENONnT experiment (pronounced “xenon n ton”), at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, uses 5.9 metric tons of liquid xenon to search for dark matter, an elusive substance that so far has been seen only via its gravitational effects in the cosmos (SN: 10/25/16). The detector is designed to look for dark matter particles crashing into xenon atoms’ nuclei, causing them to recoil. But the detector can also spot recoiling electrons.
In 2020, a smaller version of the experiment, called XENON1T, reported greater-than-expected numbers of those ricocheting electrons (SN: 6/17/20). “This caused a lot of stir when we published it,” says physicist Rafael Lang of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

That surplus, some scientists suggested, could have been explained by some unexpected new physics, such as hypothetical lightweight particles that may originate from the sun called solar axions. But the excess wasn’t large enough to be convincing, so more data were needed.

In the new analysis, which uses about 97 days of data, XENONnT spotted as many electron recoils as expected due to known particle interactions, the researchers also reported in a paper posted on the experiment’s website. Scientists don’t know what caused the extra detections in the previous experiment, but it’s possible it was merely a statistical fluke, Lang says. Or it may have been due to small amounts of tritium — hydrogen atoms with two neutrons in their nuclei — in the detector.

With the red herring out of the way, XENONnT researchers are now combing through their data for nuclear recoils, in hopes of detecting the real deal.

The world is ‘losing the window’ to contain monkeypox, experts warn

It may soon be too late to end the global monkeypox epidemic.

“We are losing the window to be able to contain this outbreak,” Boghuma Titanji, an infectious diseases doctor and virologist at Emory University in Atlanta said July 21 during a seminar sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

On July 23, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization declared the global outbreak of monkeypox is a public health emergency of international concern, the organization’s highest state of alert. The WHO committee evaluating the matter was split on whether the outbreak constitutes an international emergency, but Ghebreyesus decided that enough conditions were met to warrant the designation.
Monkeypox has infected more than 15,700 people since the beginning of May, according to (SN: 5/26/22). More than 2,800 cases have been reported in the United States as of July 22, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

“Although I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern, for the moment this is an outbreak that is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners,” Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “That means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups.”

Monkeypox has caused outbreaks for decades in some parts of Africa, Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said at the Harvard seminar. But the virus “has been neglected by the global health community.” Monkeypox “has been giving us warning signals” for years in Congo, Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, but has only gotten attention once it recently started causing cases outside of the continent, Rimoin said.

There has been no concerted global effort to contain the virus, which is related to smallpox, Titanji said. Each country has been left to set its own policies.

That has led to disparities. Well-resourced countries have had at least some access to testing, vaccines and medications, which may help limit the spread of the virus or the severity of the disease. Resource-poor nations often lack that access, leaving them with limited ability to track or control the virus. Continued spread of monkeypox in resource-poor countries could leave places that do manage to contain an initial outbreak vulnerable to reintroductions, Jay K. Varma, director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response in New York City, said in the seminar. The WHO emergency declaration may lead to a more concerted international effort that could make more resources available to contain the spread of the virus.

Even for the wealthiest countries, containing the outbreak is a challenge. Questions abound about how the virus is transmitted, and whether vaccines and treatments — when people can get them — can halt its spread. Even diagnosing the disease can be tricky, with testing often hard to come by and missed diagnoses potentially leading to more cases.

The vast majority of monkeypox cases in the global outbreak have been among men who have sex with men. Of 528 people infected with monkeypox in 16 countries, 98 percent identified as gay or bisexual men, researchers report July 21 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In some countries with outbreaks, “gay men are criminalized,” Kai Kupferschmidt, a correspondent for Science magazine, said during the seminar. In those countries, “people cannot access good information to help them keep from getting infected and cannot access health care if they do get infected. In these countries, it becomes really difficult to even see the problem,” he said.

Ghebreyesus urged all countries to “work closely with communities of men who have sex with men, to design and deliver effective information and services, and to adopt measures that protect the health, human rights and dignity of affected communities. Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus,” he said in a statement.

Doctors might also miss cases of monkeypox because of the unusual presentation of the illness in this outbreak, compared with earlier outbreaks. For instance, in the NEJM study, only a quarter of patients had monkeypox lesions on their faces and only 10 percent had the sores on their palms or soles of their feet. Those body parts have been among some of the most affected in other outbreaks.

Instead, 73 percent of people in the study had lesions in the anal and genital regions and 55 percent on the trunk, arms or legs. Some people also had lesions in their mouths and throats. Most of the people in the study had fewer than 10 lesions, with 54 people having only a single lesion on their genitals, making confusion with herpes or syphilis possible, even easy.

Seventy people in the study were admitted to the hospital. Of those, 21 were hospitalized because of pain, mostly severe rectal pain. Others had eye lesions, kidney damage, inflammation of the heart or throat swelling that prevented them from taking in liquids.

Those complications fit with what health officials across the United States have been seeing. “While mortality appears very low, which is great, morbidity has been much higher than any of us expected,” Mary Foote, the medical director of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said July 14 in a news briefing sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“A lot of people with this infection are really suffering, and some may be at risk of permanent damage and scarring. We see many people with symptoms so severe that they are unable to go to the bathroom, urinate or eat without excruciating pain,” Foote said.

A small number of women and children have also gotten monkeypox in the outbreak. Two children in the United States have been diagnosed with monkeypox, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said July 22 in an interview with the Washington Post. Both children were social contacts of men that have sex with men, she said.

A child in the Netherlands who had no contact with anyone known to be infected with the virus also got monkeypox, researchers report July 21 in Eurosurveillance. His case raises the possibility that monkeypox may be spreading undetected more broadly in communities than realized.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that we are occasionally going to see cases in individuals who are not gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men. The social networks we have as humans mean we have contact with a lot of different people,” Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology said July 22 during a White House news briefing.

Exactly how the child in the Netherlands became infected is a matter of speculation. Monkeypox typically spreads among people through close contact with infected people or with clothing, bedding or towels used by people with the disease. Examination of viral DNA showed that the boy isn’t connected to any of the known cases in the Netherlands. He traveled to Turkey in June and may have gotten infected there or while traveling.

The boy has very low levels of IgA antibodies, which patrol mucous membranes and help prevent infections there. Low levels of the antibodies could make him vulnerable to respiratory infections. People can get infected with monkeypox through droplets given off by infected people during close face-to-face interactions, such as close conversation, kissing or during medical exams. But patterns of infection clearly indicate that monkeypox isn’t airborne the way COVID-19 or other respiratory viruses are, Kupferschmidt said.

Details of how monkeypox spreads are still unknown. For instance, researchers don’t know whether the virus can be transmitted through semen as a sexually transmitted disease. Researchers have found evidence of viral DNA in semen, saliva, urine and feces, but that may just be inactive remnants of the virus. So far, no researchers have reported finding infectious virus in genital body fluids that might be exchanged during sex. Also unknown is whether getting infected through mucous membranes during sexual contact would shield against catching the virus later, Rimoin said.

Scientists are questioning whether the monkeypox virus has changed or whether it has simply found a niche social-sexual network among gay and bisexual men that may enable the virus to spread more efficiently, Titanji said. It may be that there are different transmission patterns in historically affected countries and newly affected countries that require different strategies to stop the spread, she said.

Researchers also need to do good studies to figure out how well vaccines and therapeutics work and under what circumstances, Rimoin said. WHO’s emergency declaration includes recommendations for increasing testing and surveillance and for seeding up research on vaccines, treatments and other virus containment measures.

One thing is clear, Rimoin said. “We’re giving this virus room to run like it never has before.” People have passed the buck, leaving others to work out the problem of monkeypox, she said. But now, “it’s everybody’s problem to solve.”