50 years ago, Earth’s chances of contacting E.T. looked slim

The possibility of life … on other planets has stimulated many people’s i­maginations…. In the Feb. 9 Nature, James C. G. Walker of Yale University studies the possible parameters of such a search and comes to some pessimistic conclusions.

Walker estimated it could take 1,400 to 14 million years to contact E.T. with the available technology. That’s way longer than researchers have spent listening for alien radio signals and scouring the sky with telescopes and satellites (SN: 11/21/20, p. 18).

Despite the silence, scientists have sent their own messages into the void. In 1974, Earth sent a string of binary code from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Years later, arguably the most famous message — the Golden Record — made its way to space aboard NASA spacecraft (SN: 8/20/77, p. 124).

If aliens ever reach out, they may send quantum dispatches, scientists say (SN: 8/13/22, p. 5). Even so, the aliens are likely so far from Earth that their civilization will have collapsed by the time we get the message (SN: 4/14/18, p. 9).

A new biomaterial heals heart attack damage in animals. Humans could be next

A new biomaterial delivered to the heart soon after a heart attack can heal damaged tissue from the inside out.

Heart attacks kill cardiac muscle tissue, scarring the heart and leaving permanent damage after just six hours. The damage prevents the heart from functioning properly. If there was a way to begin healing damaged tissue soon after a heart attack, doctors could prevent scar tissue from developing.

“In an ideal world, you treat a patient immediately when they’re having a heart attack to try to salvage some of the tissue and promote regeneration,” says Karen Christman, a bioengineer at the University of California, San Diego.
The pursuit of this ideal inspired Christman, along with a team of researchers, to develop the biomaterial. In rodents and pigs, it appears to repair tissue damage and reduce inflammation directly after a heart attack, Christman and colleagues report December 29 in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

“I think it has a lot of potential,” Vimala Bharadwaj, a biomedical scientist at Stanford University who was not involved in the research. The paper “is definitely good proof of concept for what they’re trying to do.”

Previously, researchers found that stem cells derived from body fat can be used to heal bones, muscles and the heart (SN: 3/9/16). Christman wanted to work with the extracellular matrix, the lattice of proteins that provide structural support to the cells in cardiac muscle tissue. Like stems cells, it has regenerative abilities but is much less expensive, she says.

In 2009, Christman’s team produced a hydrogel using particles from this matrix. Trials in rats and later in humans showed that the material bonded to damaged areas and promoted cell repair and growth. However, due to relatively large particles of the hydrogel, it could be delivered to the heart only via a needle.

“Poking the heart with a needle could set off an arrhythmia,” says Christman. To use this treatment, doctors would need to wait a few weeks until the heart is more stable and the chance of these irregular heartbeats decreases. And that would be too late to prevent scarring.

The team took the previously created hydrogel, sifted out the larger particles with a centrifuge so only nanoparticles remained, and added water to dilute the mixture. That created a material thin enough to deliver to heart blood vessels intravenously.
Based on the nanoparticles’ size, the team expected the mixture would slip through any gaps in cardiac blood vessels caused by the heart attack and adhere to the surrounding tissue. Once there, it would create a protective barrier while the heart healed.

Instead, animal experiments showed that the extracellular matrix material bound to the leaky vessels, preventing some inflammatory cells from moving into the heart tissue in the first place and causing further damage. The material reduced inflammation in the heart and stimulated the healing process by encouraging cell growth, the team reports.

Further safety studies will be needed to get the biomaterial ready for clinical trials. The first trial in humans will most likely be for repairing cardiac tissue post–heart attack. “A lot of my motivation is moving things out of the lab, actually into the real world,” Christman says.

Another real-world application of the biomaterial could be treatment for leaky blood vessels in other hard-to-access organs, including in the brain after a traumatic injury, Christman notes.

While Bharadwaj finds that application potentially promising, she says tests are needed to see whether the biomaterial improves headaches and cognitive or memory deficits in the brain after a traumatic injury. That’s needed to gauge whether it really is an effective TBI treatment.

Trauma distorts our sense of time and self. A new therapy might help

Trish Tran narrates her life in staccato notes.

“I remember carrying my little sister on my back because she’s too tired and walking through the huge sunflower fields … and me feeling so tired I didn’t think I could walk another step.”

“I remember being in a taxi with my mother, coming back to the man who had been violently abusive to all of us…. Her words to me were, ‘Just trust me, Trish. Just trust me.’ ”
“I’m waiting at a train station … to meet my mother who I haven’t seen in many years…. Hours pass and eventually I try to call her … and she says to me, ‘I’m sorry, Trish. My neighbor was upset, and I needed to stay back with them.’ And her voice was slurring quite a lot, so I knew she had been drinking.”

Tran, who lives in Perth, Australia, is dispassionate as she describes a difficult childhood. Her account lacks what are generally considered classic signs of trauma: She makes no mention of flashbacks, appears to have a generally positive outlook and speaks with relative ease about distressing events. Yet she narrates her life growing up and living in the Australian Outback as a series of disconnected events; her life story lacks connective glue.

Two photos of Trish Tran. On the left is a black and white family photo with Tran as a small child sitting on her fathers lap while to their right her mother holds a baby and her three siblings stand. The photo on the right is Tran as an adult holding a microphone and smiling.
That disjointed style is not how people, at least people in the West, tend to talk about themselves, says psychologist Christin Camia. Autobiographical accounts, like any good narrative, typically contain a curation of key past experiences, transitions linking those experiences and larger arcs about where life is headed. People use these stories to make sense of their lives, says Camia, of Zayed University’s Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates.

But a growing body of evidence from fields as wide-ranging as psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy and literary studies suggests that, as with Tran, trauma can shatter the narrative coherence of one’s life. People lose the plot.

Life’s crises can trigger an existential crisis, Camia says. People think: “I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know where I go from here.”
One therapy now in testing aims to re-tether traumatized individuals to their mental timelines, or their sense of themselves as connected across past, present and future. The therapy focuses on the future, which once rife with possibilities now appears as a void. It asks: What would it take for someone like Tran, or anyone traumatized by war, abuse, mass shootings, the ongoing pandemic and other calamities, to flip their life script, to say that they know who they are and where they go from here?

People maintain a sense of self across time
In a nod to an established research approach, I have asked Tran to tell me her story in two parts. First, she should narrate seven snapshots of key moments in her life. Second, Tran, who is a lecturer on mental health recovery at Curtin University in Perth, should stitch those snapshots together to tell me how she became who she is today.

The first task comes easy. The second task eludes her. She switches to generalities. “I’ve always been a highly reflective person,” she says. “I’ve had to rely on my brains to keep myself and my family alive.”

I try to nudge her toward specifics, but her timeline disintegrates. She repeatedly attempted suicide. Her mother brought home many violent men.

The developer of this two-question approach, psychologist Tilmann Habermas, wasn’t focused on people who had experienced trauma. Habermas, now at Goethe University Frankfurt, wanted to understand how adolescents develop a narrative identity and then sustain that sense of self over time.

In 2003, Habermas launched a study that would follow participants for up to 16 years. Participants came into the lab every four years and dictated their life story in roughly 20-minute increments, using the two-task format I tried with Tran. Habermas analyzed the resulting transcripts line by line, coding them for emotion, tense, transitions and other features.

With few psychologists at the time studying autobiography as a window into the mind, Habermas turned to theorists from other fields for guidance. “After I read psychology, I read narratology, literary theory, linguistics, social linguistics,” he says. “I had to steal … all these concepts from the other areas.”

One of Habermas’ questions was how people retain their sense of self in the face of life’s many disturbances, such as divorce, illness, job loss or moving to a new location.

Philosophers have been puzzling over this question for millennia. “Your body has changed. Your experiences have changed. Your knowledge has changed. And yet, people generally think of themselves as being the same person … in the past and future,” says psychologist Yosef Sokol of Touro University in New York City. “That’s a hard problem.”

This general belief in self-continuity appears universal, even though how it is constructed may differ across cultures.
In the third wave of Habermas’ long-term study, when 150 participants were ages 16, 20, 28, 44 and 69, Habermas and Camia, who joined Habermas’ lab in 2009, also analyzed the transcripts for a type of thinking called autobiographical reasoning. This reasoning links the self across space and time.

“Autobiographical reasoning is this conscious reflection. How did my past impact me? How did I become the person I am today, and what does it mean for my future?” Camia says. Such reasoning tends to stem from change, she adds. “If there is perfect stability in life, you don’t do a lot of autobiographical reasoning … it’s the changes and the crises that compel meaning-making.”

The researchers divvied such reasoning into eight categories, such as turning points, lessons learned, generalized insights and using an event to explain a change in personality.

Participants also filled out two surveys. One survey summed up the number of big life changes experienced over the previous four years. The other gauged self-continuity, with participants rating the truth of statements such as, “When I look at pictures of myself four years back, it feels a little unfamiliar” and “I have the feeling that at the core I am the same person I was four years ago.”

Researchers then compared the three variables: autobiographical reasoning, levels of life change and sense of self-continuity. As expected, levels of autobiographical reasoning showed no discernible pattern among participants who experienced few changes in life, the team reported in 2015 in Memory.

But when the researchers zoomed in on the quarter of participants reporting the greatest level of change, more autobiographical reasoning came with higher levels of self-continuity. “Constructing continuity in the life story buffers against the effect of change in your life,” Habermas says. Other teams have made similar findings.
Most disruptions, however, do not rise to the level of trauma — such as that experienced by Tran. Several years later, Camia would study how traumatic events, notably being forced to flee one’s home and the resulting isolation and bereavement, affect people’s sense of self.

Trauma messes with our sense of time
“What does war change first? One’s sense of time, one’s sense of space,” said Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan in an October speech translated to English in the online magazine LitHub.

Zhadan speaks from experience. But the idea that trauma disrupts time perception is also borne out by research. Researchers have found that emotions frequently dictate whether we experience time as passing fast or slow. And traumatic events, which come with intense emotions, can cause people to experience time in slow motion, researchers reported in 2012 in Frontiers in Psychology.

During a car accident, for instance, a person’s whole body is ready to act, says Marc Wittmann, a psychologist with the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. “Your inner workings, your processing, is speeded up. Relative to that, your outside slows down.”

What’s more, says health psychologist Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine, in that moment or moments of crisis, you do not think about the past or future. All that matters is survival.

Zhadan speaks directly to this idea in his speech: “People in a war-torn space try not to plan for the future or think too much about what the world will be like tomorrow. What’s happening to you here and now is all that matters, just the people and things that will be with you tomorrow morning — tops. That’s if you survive and wake up.”

That narrow focus can wreak havoc on mental health. “[When] that present moment is so intense that it sears into your mind … it may set up the likelihood that you will have a hard time moving past it,” Holman says. “The past never passes.”

Such breakdowns in time can show up in language, particularly among those most severely affected by trauma. For instance, Habermas and his team compared the speech patterns of 14 women diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following a singular shocking event, such as physical or sexual abuse, and 14 women without such a diagnosis. The women with PTSD used more immersive language. They quoted people directly and spoke of the past as if it was ongoing, says Habermas, who reported the findings in 2014. “Instead of saying, ‘He hit me,’ they would say, ‘He hits me.’ ”

This immersive language dominates Tran’s narration. She is “carrying” her little sister. Her mother is “coming” back to the violent man. She is “walking many kilometers to school in the rain and then opening up my newspaper-wrapped wet and warm tomato sandwiches. They’re so wet, but I’m so hungry that I know I have to eat them otherwise I’ll never make the walk back.”

And always there, her mother’s voice: “Just trust me, Trish. Just trust me.”

“I don’t think I will ever forget those words,” Tran says.

Traumatized people can lose their life story
Tran remembers her mother’s words exactly, but other details of the abuse she experienced as a child are fuzzier. That’s common among people who experience trauma. People with trauma “have both an excess and depletion of memory,” says cognitive neuroscientist Elisa Ciaramelli of the University of Bologna in Italy.

How memory changes among trauma survivors remains controversial, write the authors of a 2021 opinion piece in Frontiers in Psychology. But mounting evidence suggests that people tend to remember stressful memories in detail. As the mind fixates on those traumatic memories, memories unrelated to the trauma seem to fade, while new memories fail to register.

For example, when asked to describe memories associated with a specific word, such as “beach,” people who do not have PTSD offer detailed reports, describing what they were wearing, what they said and who they were with, Ciaramelli says. People who have PTSD, on the other hand, typically provide general memories with little color.

Other memories can’t find a foothold. In one study, researchers asked 52 participants — 26 people with PTSD and 26 people who had experienced trauma but not developed PTSD — to keep a diary recording their memories over the course of a week. Participants also responded to questions about the memory, such as whether or not it related to their trauma, how central it was to their current life and how far away in time the memory felt.

Participants without PTSD recorded an average of 21.4 memories across the week while participants with PTSD recorded an average of just 11 memories, the team reported in 2017 in Clinical Psychological Science. The PTSD participants had more trauma-related memories than the non-PTSD group.

Tran recognizes this paucity of detail in her own life story. “My memories are lightbulb memories,” she says. “They are always attached to significant events like trauma or happy times. I may have 57 years of life, but you could truncate them into a chapter.”

Everyone’s memory has imprecision of course. That imprecision allows us to cut extraneous details and make sense of our story. The traumatized person’s relative lack of memories, though, both in clarity and quantity, means they struggle to construct a cohesive narrative of their past and to envision themselves moving forward.

“Ten years ago, people have found that the same brain regions that are activated and are necessary for remembering the past are also necessary to imagine the future,” Ciaramelli says. “We need memories to imagine the future.”

Camia’s work with refugees shows what can happen to the sense of self as people struggle and fail to reconcile a traumatic experience with the larger story of their life. Her central aim, which built on work with Habermas, was to see if the same autobiographical arguments people used to buffer against life’s everyday changes could help those facing traumatic disruptions. She and Rida Zafar, a psychology student at New York University Abu Dhabi, recruited 31 refugees living in Germany and asked them to narrate their life stories, plus fill out the life change and self-continuity surveys used in the 2015 study.

Among the 16 refugees who experienced relatively less change since arriving in Germany, such as fewer upheavals in relationships and fewer moves, more autobiographical reasoning did correlate with higher self-continuity, the team reported in 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology. Refugees who experienced high change also used autobiographical reasoning, but their sense of self-continuity remained low.

These individuals cannot settle their trauma, Camia explains, so their reckoning with the past leads not to resolution but rumination. They are stuck.

Therapy could restore the future self
For most of her adult life, Tran grappled with that sense of stagnation. “My identity was rooted in the past, and I couldn’t move forward,” she says. “Time was this eternal loop. Every time a problem came up, it felt like a replication of a past problem. I couldn’t see that I could change anything.”

Over and over again, unable to envision a viable escape, Tran tried to kill herself.

Suicide attempts serve as the clearest signal that a person’s future has gone blank, says Sokol, the psychologist at Touro University. The thinking here is intuitive. “If you think you have a meaningful life into the future, you’re not going to kill yourself,” he says.

Conventional therapies for treating people struggling with suicidal thinking often fail to meet their needs because the therapies do not directly address people’s future self, Sokol and his team wrote in 2021 in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy. For instance, dialectical behavior therapy emphasizes focusing on the present to cope with stress and manage emotions. Narrative therapy likewise aims to help patients incorporate traumatic and other events into a continuous timeline, but focuses on linking past to present, not present to future.

So Sokol developed a therapy that incorporates elements of past- and present-oriented treatments but prioritizes future thinking. It’s known as continuous identity cognitive therapy. His goal is to help military veterans struggling with mental illness re-create the plot in the mental timeline of their lives, to answer those foundational questions: Who am I? Where do I go from here?

Sokol tested an initial version of the therapy in a four-week pilot study with 17 veterans. The program contains many work-arounds for participants struggling to access or make sense of their memories. The specific memory is less important than the larger story, or the broader values contained within that memory, Sokol says. “I have all sorts of techniques to help people tap into something that they find important, meaningful.”

In the first week, participants are asked to define their core values. The hope is that those values, rather than specific past events, will form the core of a person’s life story. To get to that core, participants review negative and positive experiences from their past and identify choices they made.

Many veterans struggle with what are called moral injuries — choices they made that don’t seem to align with who they wish to be, Sokol says. So veterans push those memories away. With the values approach, he hopes participants can start to see that they made the best choices they could under challenging circumstances. One way to access those values is to have participants identify people they admire, and the values those people embody. Participants can then use those people’s experiences to identify their own core values.

The focus of the second week shifts to the future. Participants assemble possible futures by reflecting on how life might play out if they work with, or against, their stated values. Participants also actively construct self-continuity. For instance, they write letters to themselves across different time points, such as from their present self to their future self or vice versa.

In week three, participants learn to differentiate between external life stories, the series of events outside their control, and internal life stories made up of choices in line with their stated values. By week four, participants should be able to visualize their future self overcoming an issue that their present self faces.
Tran came across Sokol’s research while embarking on her own journey to healing. That process began when Tran realized how her trauma was hurting the people she loved most. “I’m just causing my children and everybody near and dear trauma. I’m going to take [suicide] off the table,” she eventually realized. “This is not my pathway anymore. If it’s not my pathway, what am I going to do with the next 50 years of my life?”

Tran felt lost. So she dug into research on trauma survivors, eventually stumbling upon Sokol’s project. She was moved by the idea that participants did not have to reconstruct the past to build a new future. “This is true. My soul knows this to be true,” she remembers thinking.

Tran, who is also a trainer with DISCHARGED, a nonprofit organization that provides peer group support for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, and an occasional adviser to researchers writing about suicide, reached out to Sokol and offered to help him make the language used in his program more sensitive to people who have experienced trauma. For instance, she suggested changing references to “you” to “we” to give people a greater sense of belonging and agency. The two still work together.

Research on the therapy remains limited to Sokol’s lab, but initial results are promising. The pilot study showed that the program decreased previously reported levels of suicidal ideation and depression. Those levels stayed low one month after completion. Now Sokol has received a five-year, $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to scale up the program and eventually roll out a randomized controlled trial. In its newer iteration, the program will run for three months instead of one.

With input from Tran and veterans in the program, Sokol made another substantial modification to the pilot program. Participants will now identify how their own story intersects with the stories of other people in their lives. That addition makes sense to Tran, who has become engrossed in research showing the intergenerational nature of trauma. She now sees her life as part of a larger story with many characters, each on their own often troubled journey.

She says her story will always be truncated. But even without a clean narrative arc, she has managed to sever time’s eternal loop. “You can change your relationship with your past experiences in a way that makes living a future possible,” Tran says.

50 years ago, scientists discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Setting sail into a plastic sea — Science News, February 10, 1973

Scientists on an oceanographic voyage in the Central North Pacific last August became startled about the number of manmade objects littering the ocean surface. [Far from civilization and shipping lanes], they recorded 53 manmade objects in 8.2 hours of viewing. More than half were plastic. They go on to compute that there are between 5 million and 35 million plastic bottles adrift in the North Pacific.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is larger now than it was in 1973, containing an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic within an area twice the size of Texas (SN Online: 3/22/18). In recent years, marine biologists have started seeing evidence that garbage is disrupting ocean ecosystems. For instance, large pieces of trash have helped species cross into new territories (SN: 10/28/17, p. 32). But an even greater threat may lurk beneath the waves. Tiny bits of plastic concentrate hundreds of meters deep where they can be eaten by filter feeders and potentially make their way into the guts of larger predators (SN: 7/6/19 & 7/20/19, p. 5).

Insect bites in plant fossils reveal leaves could fold shut millions of years ago

As early as 252 million years ago, some plants may have curled up their leaves at night for a cozy “sleep.”

Fossilized leaves of two now-extinct Gigantonoclea species bear signs of nyctinasty, or circadian rhythmic folding at night, researchers report February 15 in Current Biology. That would make these specimens the first known fossilized examples of this curious plant behavior, the team says.

The two leaf fossils were discovered in a rock layer in southwestern China that dates to between 259 million and 252 million years ago. In both species, the leaves were broad, with serrated edges. But most curiously, they bear oddly symmetrical holes.
Insects made those holes while feeding on the leaves while they were folded, say paleontologist Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University in Kunming, China and colleagues. Similar symmetrical patterns of insect damage in leaf fossils can be used to distinguish folding behavior from leaves that might have shriveled as the plant died, the team says.

Modern plants, including many in the legume family such as the orchid tree, that fold and unfold their leaves use specialized cells called pulvinus cells, which act somewhat like muscles (SN: 2/3/23). By shifting water from one part of the leaf to another, the cells can bloat or deflate, allowing the leaves to fold or curl.

These cells would be at the base of the leaves, which weren’t preserved in the fossils, so it’s not possible to say whether these ancient plants also had pulvinus cells, the team says. Although it’s also hard to prove this was nighttime behavior, the leaves would also have had to be folded long enough for insects to do their munching. But the find does suggest that such leaf folding emerged independently in different plant lineages: Nearly all the modern plants that do this are angiosperms, or flowering plants. But Gigantonoclea plants were gymnosperms, seed-producing plants such as conifers and ginkgos.

Rapid melting is eroding vulnerable cracks in Thwaites Glacier’s underbelly

Antarctica’s most vulnerable climate hot spot is a remote and hostile place — a narrow sliver of seawater, beneath a slab of floating ice more than half a kilometer thick. Scientists have finally explored it, and uncovered something surprising.

“The melt rate is much weaker than we would have thought, given how warm the ocean is,” says Peter Davis, an oceanographer at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge who was part of the team that drilled a narrow hole into this nook and lowered instruments into it. The finding might seem like good news — but it isn’t, he says. “Despite those low melt rates, we’re still seeing rapid retreat” as the ice vanishes faster than it’s being replenished.
Davis and about 20 other scientists conducted this research at Thwaites Glacier, a massive conveyor belt of ice about 120 kilometers wide, which flows off the coastline of West Antarctica. Satellite measurements show that Thwaites is losing ice more quickly than at any time in the last few thousand years (SN: 6/9/22). It has accelerated its flow into the ocean by at least 30 percent since 2000, hemorrhaging over 1,000 cubic kilometers of ice — accounting for roughly half of the ice lost from all of Antarctica.

Much of the current ice loss is driven by warm, salty ocean currents that are destabilizing the glacier at its grounding zone — the crucial foothold, about 500 meters below sea level at the drilling location, where the ice lifts off its bed and floats (SN: 4/9/21).

Now, this first-ever look at the glacier’s underbelly near the grounding zone shows that the ocean is attacking it in previously unknown and troubling ways.
When the researchers sent a remote-operated vehicle, or ROV, down the borehole and into the water below, they found that much of the melting is concentrated in places where the glacier is already under mechanical stress — within massive cracks called basal crevasses. These openings slice up into the underside of the ice.

Even a small amount of melting at these weak spots could inflict a disproportionately large amount of structural damage on the glacier, the researchers report in two papers published February 15 in Nature.

These results are “a bit of a surprise,” says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not part of the team. Thwaites and other glaciers are monitored mostly with satellites, which make it appear that thinning and melting happen uniformly under the ice.

As the world continues to warm due to human-caused climate change, the shrinking glacier itself has the potential to raise global sea level by 65 centimeters over a period of centuries. Its collapse would also destabilize the remainder of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, triggering an eventual three meters of global sea level rise.

With these new results, Scambos says, “we’re seeing in much more detail processes that will be important for modeling” how the glacier responds to future warming, and how quickly sea level will rise.

A cold, thin layer shields parts of Thwaites Glacier’s underside
Simply getting these observations “is kind of like a moon shot, or even a Mars shot,” Scambos says. Thwaites, like most of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, rests on a bed that is hundreds of meters below sea level. The floating front of the glacier, called an ice shelf, extends 15 kilometers out onto the ocean, creating a roof of ice that makes this spot almost entirely inaccessible to humans. “This might represent the pinnacle of exploration” in Antarctica, he says.

These new results stem from a $50 million effort — the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration — conducted by the United States’ National Science Foundation and United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council. The research team, one of eight funded by that collaboration, landed on the snowy, flat expanse of Thwaites in the final days of 2019.

The researchers used a hot water drill to melt a narrow hole, not much wider than a basketball, through more than 500 meters of ice. Below the ice sat a water column that was only 54 meters thick.

When Davis and his colleagues measured the temperature and salinity of that water, they found that most of it was about 2 degrees Celsius above freezing — potentially warm enough to melt 20 to 40 meters of ice per year. But the underside of the ice seems to be melting at a rate of only 5 meters per year, researchers report in one of the Nature papers. The team calculated the melt rate based on the water’s salinity, which reveals the ratio of seawater, which is salty, to glacial meltwater, which is fresh.

The reason for that slow melt quickly emerged: Just beneath the ice sat a layer of cold, buoyant water, only 2 meters thick, derived from melted ice. “There is pooling of much fresher water at the ice base,” says Davis, and this cold layer shields the ice from warmer water below.

Those measurements provided a snapshot right at the borehole. Several days after the hole was opened, the researchers began a broader exploration of the unmapped ocean cavity under the ice.

Workers winched a skinny, yellow and black cylinder down the borehole. This ROV, called Icefin, was developed over the last seven years by a team of engineers led by Britney Schmidt, a glaciologist at Cornell University.
Schmidt and her team piloted the craft from a nearby tent, monitoring instruments while she steered the craft with gentle nudges to the buttons of a PlayStation 4 controller. The smooth, mirrorlike ceiling of ice scrolled silently past on a computer monitor — the live video feed piped up through 3½ kilometers of fiber-optic cable.

As Schmidt guided Icefin about 1.6 kilometers upstream from the borehole, the water column gradually tapered, until less than a meter of water separated the ice from the seafloor below. A few fish and shrimplike crustaceans called amphipods flitted among otherwise barren piles of gravel.

This new section of seafloor — revealed as the ice thins, lifts and floats progressively farther inland — had been exposed “for less than a year,” Schmidt says.

Now and then, Icefin skimmed past a dark, gaping cleft in the icy ceiling, a basal crevasse. Schmidt steered the craft into several of these gaps — often over 100 meters wide — and there, she saw something striking.

Melting of Thwaites’ underbelly is concentrated in deep crevasses
The vertical walls of the crevasses were scalloped rather than smooth, suggesting a higher rate of melting than that of the flat icy ceiling. And in these places, the video became blurry as the light refracted through vigorously swirling eddies of salty water and freshwater. That turbulent swirling of warm ocean water and cold meltwater is breaking up the cold layer that insulates the ice, pulling warm, salty water into contact with it, the scientists think.

Schmidt’s team calculated that the walls of the crevasses are melting at rates of up to 43 meters per year, the researchers report in the second Nature paper. The researchers also found rapid melt in other places where the level ceiling of ice is punctuated by short, steep sections.

The greater turbulence and higher melt also appear driven by ocean currents within the crevasses. Each time Schmidt steered Icefin up into a crevasse, the ROV detected streams of water flowing through it, as though the crevasse were an upside-down ditch. These currents moved up to twice as fast as the currents outside of crevasses.

The fact that melting is concentrated in crevasses has huge implications, says Peter Washam, an oceanographer on Schmidt’s team at Cornell: “The ocean is widening these features by melting them faster.”

This could greatly accelerate the years-long process by which some of these cracks propagate hundreds of meters up through the ice until they break through at the top — calving off an iceberg that drifts away. It could cause the floating ice shelf, which presses against an undersea mountain and buttresses the ice behind it, to break apart more quickly than predicted. This, in turn, could cause the glacier to spill ice into the ocean more quickly (SN: 12/13/21). “It’s going to have an impact on the stability of the ice,” Washam says.
These new data will improve scientists’ ability to predict the future retreat of Thwaites and other Antarctic glaciers, says Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who assisted the team by providing satellite measurements of changes in the glacier. “You just cannot guess what the water structure might look like in these zones until you observe it,” he says.

But more work is needed to fully understand Thwaites and how it will further change as the world continues to warm. The glacier consists of two side-by-side fast-moving lanes of ice — one moving 3 kilometers per year, the other about 1 kilometer per year. Due to safety concerns, the team visited the slower lane — which still proved extremely challenging. Rignot says that scientists must eventually visit the fast lane, whose upper surface is more cracked up with crevasses — making it even harder to land aircraft and operate field camps.

The research reported today “is a very important step, but it needs to be followed by a second step,” the investigation of the glacier’s fast lane, he says. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is.”

Cockatoos can tell when they need more than one tool to swipe a snack

Forget screwdrivers or drills. A stick and a straw make for a great cockatoo tool kit.

Some Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana) know whether they need to have more than one tool in claw to topple an out-of-reach cashew, researchers report February 10 in Current Biology. By recognizing that two items are necessary to access the snack, the birds join chimpanzees as the only nonhuman animals known to use tools as a set.

The study is a fascinating example of what cockatoos are capable of, says Anne Clark, a behavioral ecologist at Binghamton University in New York, who was not involved in the study. A mental awareness that people often attribute to our close primate relatives can also pop up elsewhere in the animal kingdom.
A variety of animals including crows and otters use tools but don’t deploy multiple objects together as a kit (SN: 9/14/16; SN: 3/21/17). Chimpanzees from the Republic of Congo’s Noubalé-Ndoki National Park, on the other hand, recognize the need for both a sharp stick to break into termite mounds and a fishing stick to scoop up an insect feast (SN: 10/19/04).

Researchers knew wild cockatoos could use three different sticks to break open fruit in their native range of Indonesia. But it was unclear whether the birds might recognize the sticks as a set or instead as a chain of single tools that became necessary as new problems arose, says evolutionary biologist Antonio Osuna Mascaró of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

Osuna Mascaró and colleagues first tested whether the cockatoos could learn to smack loose a cashew placed inside a clear box and behind a thin paper barrier, akin to a chimpanzee’s hunt for termites. Six out of 10 cockatoos reliably knocked the nut out of the box using a pointy stick to poke through the membrane and a plastic straw to fish for the cashew.

Two birds managed the task in less than 35 seconds on their first try. Both — a male named Figaro and a female named Fini — are experienced tool users, Osuna Mascaró says.

Figaro, Fini and three fellow cockatoos were more likely to use both stick and straw only when the box had a paper barrier inside. If the team removed the barrier, the birds selected the straw instead of the stick as their tool.

Even when the birds had to walk or fly to reach the box, the birds brought along both tools every time the box had a barrier. If there was no paper, the cockatoos usually brought only one, a sign the cockatoos recognized when they needed their entire tool kit to swipe a snack.
Three of the birds even learned to put the stick inside the straw to carry both at the same time. That made for more efficient transport, meaning the birds didn’t have to make two trips and waste energy. Two birds, Kiwi and Pippin, transported both tools together every time the box had a barrier. Kiwi rarely brought along both tools if there wasn’t paper, and Pippin did so half as often.

Trading off which tools to bring may have to do with strength. After Figaro learned to combine transport, he grabbed both tools in 16 out of 18 trials. That may be because he’s one of the stronger birds in the group, Osuna Mascaró says. For him, grabbing both tools at once isn’t a big deal. Kiwi and Pippin, on the other hand, are weaker than Figaro.

Cockatoos raised in the lab probably display more abilities than a wild bird might use on an average day, Clark says. “Nevertheless, this means they can do it,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that the wild adult male … can do the same thing as Figaro. But he would have probably been capable of doing that had he been raised like Figaro.”

We prioritize family over self, and that has real-world implications

A focus on family might be the key to personal well-being.

Surveys in the social sciences, such as those measuring happiness or health, tend to focus on the smallest unit: the individual. But two new studies, each surveying over 10,000 people worldwide, show that primary unit of analysis may need scaling up. One study suggests that people adhere to public health guidelines less to protect themselves than their loved ones. And the other study provides an explanation for why that may be the case: People the world over prioritize family happiness over their own.
Neither research team defined the term “family,” instead allowing respondents to interpret the term as they saw fit. As such, the results suggest that the exact nature of family, whether nuclear, blood-related or extended, does not matter.

The findings have important implications for society, says Karen Bogenschneider, a family policy expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved with either study. That’s because policy makers occasionally rely on research findings to develop programs such as those aimed at reducing substance abuse or inequality. When researchers frame societal issues in terms of the individual or community, so too do policy makers. And those programs may be less effective as a result.

For instance, several studies in the past couple decades have shown that including family members in addiction treatment programs lowers the addict’s risk of relapse and improves family relationships.

Moreover, these studies challenge the assumption that individualism has turned the self into the most important unit of survival (SN: 10/7/19).

Family bonds drove individuals to adopt pandemic-related health behaviors
The idea that policy makers can target family to change behavior comes as no surprise to Martha Newson, an anthropologist at Kent University in England. For years, Newson has studied a concept known as fusion, where an individual becomes so enmeshed in a larger social unit that she or he is willing to sacrifice personal well-being, or even survival, for the group (SN: 6/23/16).

At the onset of the pandemic, Newson and her team began studying how social fusion might be influencing behavior around the world during the pandemic.
From March to May 2020, over 13,000 participants from 122 countries were shown a sequence of five pictures, each with two circles, one for the self and the other for a given group such as family, country or all of humankind. In the first picture, the circles are far apart, but in subsequent pictures they grow closer and closer together until they fully overlap. Participants had to select one of the five pictures to indicate their level of fusion with the group. A participant had to select the fully overlapping circles to be considered fused to the group.

Participants also filled out scales to indicate how much they had performed a given public health action, such as social distancing or masking, in the previous week.

Participants who were fused to family were overrepresented among those reporting strong adherence to public health guidelines, Newson and colleagues reported January 13 in Science Advances. For instance, despite representing roughly a quarter of the participant pool, participants with strong family bonds constituted three-quarters of those who reported following social distancing guidelines. And almost half of participants with strong family bonds reported frequent handwashing compared with about one-third of participants with weaker family bonds.

Humans evolved in small-scale societies, Newson says. “When we have crises … these smaller units remain very important.”

On average, people value family happiness more than their own
Meanwhile, another group of researchers had begun to question the widely accepted belief that many happy individuals sum up to a happy society. That idea originated in the West, and has often been treated as universal, says Kuba Krys, a cross-cultural psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

But research over the years has indicated that non-Westerners may not value personal happiness as much as people in the West. For instance, outside the West, people tend to see happiness as more interdependent, or grounded in harmony and balance with others, than independent, or grounded in the self.

If happiness exists at least partially outside the individual, then Krys and his team wondered what unit researchers should study. They looked to family.

The team had roughly 13,000 participants from 49 countries indicate how much the perfect or ideal person would agree with statements in two commonly used surveys of well-being. Statements appeared both in the standard “I” framing and in a new family framing. For instance, participants reflected on how the ideal person would respond to both the statements, “In most ways, my life is close to ideal” and “In most ways, the life of my family is close to ideal.”

Nearly half of the participants valued family well-being over personal well-being, while less than a third preferred their own happiness, the team reports in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Moreover, participants in even the most individualistic countries, including the United States, valued family, on average, more than self.
The word “family” has become associated with conservativism, Krys says. But family remains central to people’s lives, regardless of geography or political affiliation. “The shape of family has changed but family as an idea, as a basic unit, has not changed,” he says. “I would advise progressives … not to be afraid of touching on family topics.”

Bogenschneider’s research backs up this point. In a study of more than 200 state legislators, she and colleagues found that while abortion and same-sex marriage remain highly polarized, policy makers tend to view other family issues, such as those involving domestic violence, juvenile crime or teen pregnancy, as largely bipartisan.

This suggests that issues that aren’t typically centered around family, such as climate change or inequality, could be framed in terms of family to garner wider support, Bogenschneider says. Researchers who are seeking to translate their findings into policy and advocates who are advancing particular causes could, she adds, “elevate policy makers’ interest in those issues by focusing on families and family contributions.”

Many plans for green infrastructure risk leaving vulnerable people out

If you’ve noticed more lush medians and plant-covered roofs in cities, it’s not your imagination.

Incorporating more natural elements in urban landscapes is a growing management solution for the planet’s increasing climate hazards (SN: 3/10/22). Rain gardens, green roofs and landscaped drainage ditches are all examples of what’s known as green infrastructure, and are used to manage stormwater and mitigate risks like flooding and extreme heat. These strategies sometimes double as a community resource, such as a recreational space.
But a major problem with green infrastructure is that the planning processes for the projects often fail to consider equity and inclusion, says Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist and director of the Urban Systems Lab in New York City, which researches how to build more equitable, resilient and sustainable cities. Without an eye on equity, plans might exclude those most vulnerable to climate disasters, which typically include low-income communities or minority groups (SN: 2/28/22).

There has been talk of fostering equity and inclusion in urban planning for some time, McPhearson says, but he wanted to know if there had been any follow-through. After analyzing 122 formal plans from 20 major U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Detroit and Sacramento, he and colleagues found that most government-affiliated green infrastructure plans are falling short. The researchers focused on plans produced or directly supervised by city governments, as non-profit organizations tend to be more inclusive, the study says.

Over 90 percent of plans didn’t use inclusive processes to design or implement green infrastructure projects, meaning communities targeted for upgrades often didn’t have a chance to weigh in with their needs throughout the process. What’s more, only 10 percent of plans identified causes of inequality and vulnerability in their communities. That matters because without acknowledging the roots of injustices, planners are unable to potentially address them in future projects. And only around 13 percent of plans even defined equity or justice, the researchers report in the January Landscape and Urban Planning.

Such inadequate plans can perpetuate existing inequalities that are part of an “ongoing legacy of historically racist policies,” McPhearson says, including limited access to heat- and pollution-relieving green spaces or proper stormwater management.

“We have an opportunity with green infrastructure to invest in a way that can help solve multiple urban problems,” McPhearson says. “But only if we focus it in the places where there is the most need.”

One reason behind poor urban planning practices is a lack of recognition that infrastructure can be harmful, says Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, the senior director for community-led conservation at The Wilderness Society in Los Angeles, who wasn’t involved in the study. For instance, when cities build stormwater channels but not bridges, locals are left without a way to safely cross. City planners also often lack the training and education to implement more inclusive methods.

But there’s hope. The researchers identified three areas that need more work. First, city planners need to clearly define equity and justice in planning documents to help guide their work. They also need to change planning practices to focus on inclusion by keeping communities informed and supporting their participation throughout the planning, decision-making and implementation processes. And plans need to address current and potential causes of inequality: For example, acknowledging sources of gentrification and identifying how green infrastructure could contribute to gentrification further if officials aren’t careful (SN: 4/18/19).

“If equity isn’t centered in your plans, then inequity is,” Lopez-Ledesma says. “You could be doing more harm.”

A new metric of extinction risk considers how cultures care for species

In shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans, a seagrass-scrounging cousin of the manatee is in trouble. Environmental strains like pollution and habitat loss pose a major threat to dugong (Dugong dugon) survival, so much so that in December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the species’ extinction risk status to vulnerable. Some populations are now classified as endangered or critically endangered.

If that weren’t bad enough, the sea cows are at risk of losing the protection of a group who has long looked after them: the Torres Strait Islanders. These Indigenous people off the coast of Australia historically have been stewards of the dugong populations there, sustainably hunting the animals and monitoring their numbers. But the Torres Strait Islanders are also threatened, in part because sea levels are rising and encroaching on their communities, and warmer air and sea temperatures are making it difficult for people to live in the region.
This situation isn’t unique to dugongs. A global analysis of 385 culturally important plant and animal species found that 68 percent were both biologically vulnerable and at risk of losing their cultural protections, researchers report January 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings clearly illustrate that biology shouldn’t be the primary factor in shaping conservation policy, says cultural anthropologist Victoria Reyes-García. When a culture dwindles, the species that are important to that culture are also under threat. To be effective, more conservation efforts need to consider the vulnerability of both the species and the people that have historically cared for them, she says.

“A lot of the people in the conservation arena think we need to separate people from nature,” says Reyes-García, of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. But that tactic overlooks the caring relationship many cultural groups – like the Torres Strait Islanders – have with nature, she says.

“Indigenous people, local communities, also other ethnic groups – they are good stewards of their biodiversity,” says Ina Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist at the University of the West Indies at Mona in Kingston, Jamaica, who was not involved in the work. “They have knowledge, deep knowledge, about their environments that we really cannot overlook.”

One way to help shift conservation efforts is to give species a “biocultural status,” which would provide a fuller picture of their vulnerability, Reyes-García and colleagues say. In the study, the team used existing language vitality research to determine a culture’s risk of disappearing: The more a cultural group’s language use declines, the more that culture is threatened. And the more a culture is threatened, the more culturally vulnerable its important species are. Researchers then combined a species’ cultural and biological vulnerability to arrive at its biocultural status. In the dugong’s case, its biocultural status is endangered, meaning it is more at risk than its IUCN categorization suggests.

This intersectional approach to conservation can help species by involving the people that have historically cared for them (SN: 3/2/22). It can also highlight when communities need support to continue their stewardship, Reyes-García says. She hopes this new framework will spark more conservation efforts that recognize local communities’ rights and encourage their participation – leaning into humans’ connection with nature instead of creating more separation (SN: 3/8/22).