On March 15, the Conger ice shelf, a piece of ice half the size of Rome, collapsed in eastern Antarctica. It’s the first time that side of the continent experienced a major loss of ice in the 40-year history of satellite observations. Previous collapses of shelves have until now occurred in western Antarctica. Meanwhile, researchers are reporting temperatures more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average, while parts of the Arctic are beating averages by 50 degrees.
Scientific American’s Sophie Bushwick explains why warming at the poles is both more likely than other parts of the globe, and is also exacerbating the likelihood of collapses like this. Plus, new insights into strange radio circles in space, the Hubble telescope sees the most distant star yet, and a look at the statistical likelihood of basketball “hot hands.” And an April Fool’s Day quiz on some new inventions that may or may not be real.
Scientists Are Working On HIV Vaccines Based On COVID Vaccine Tech
Several early Phase 1 human trials of vaccines using mRNA technology are now under way. The approach—which uses mRNA to induce the body to manufacture specific parts of a viral structure that then trains the immune system—was famously successful in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the basis for both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.
Now, researchers are wondering if the mRNA approach might be a solution to diseases like HIV, which have thwarted vaccine researchers for years. The NIH has supported three trials, other trials from IAVI and Moderna are also under way in Phase 1.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Ira to talk about the challenges of developing vaccines against HIV, the path through the clinical trials process, and why researchers are very cautiously optimistic about the new vaccine trials. They also discuss the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for continued vigilance and funding.
An Oregon Lithium Deposit Could Help Power Clean Energy Tech
President Joe Biden and U.S. lawmakers are ramping up their efforts to mine, manufacture and process more battery materials at home — and that’s drawn praise from the company exploring a large lithium deposit in southeast Oregon. Jindalee Resources Limited, the Australian company with lithium claims at a Bureau of Land Management site in Oregon’s Malheur County, says the growing push for U.S. critical minerals production is a positive sign. “You’ve seen bipartisan support for the development of critical minerals projects growing,” said Lindsay Dudfield, Jindalee’s executive director. “Jindalee is advancing a critical minerals project, and so we’re very encouraged by these developments.”
The Intercept reported Thursday that Biden is preparing to invoke the Defense Production Act to expedite production of batteries for electric vehicles, consumer electronics and renewable energy storage. The Defense Production Act was recently used to increase supply and hasten delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. Lawmakers in recent weeks have urged the president to use his authority under the law to do the same for batteries. “The time is now to grow, support, and encourage investment in the domestic production of graphite, manganese, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and other critical minerals to ensure we support our national security, and to fulfill our need for lithium-ion batteries — both for consumers and for the Department of Defense,” wrote Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Joe Manchin,D-W.Va.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Bill Cassidy, R-La., in a letter to the president last week. The Biden administration published a report last June that found the American battery supply chain to be extremely vulnerable as demand for batteries increases. For decades, the U.S. has relied on foreign imports of minerals needed to make those batteries, especially lithium.
While the U.S. has large lithium reserves, it only produces about 1% of the world’s supply. Demand for lithium and other materials is expected to skyrocket as the U.S. seeks to transition away from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. The Biden administration’s report says lithium could be a good candidate for new domestic mining and extraction, which would reduce American dependence on foreign sources like Russia and China. But as the rush for critical minerals like lithium speeds up in the U.S., environmental groups, Native American tribes and others have urged caution, especially when it comes to new mining. The extractive industry remains enormously destructive to frontline communities as well as land, water and wildlife.
An Unusual Fungus May Control Invasive Tawny Crazy Ants
The Tawny crazy ant (sometimes called the Rasberry crazy ant) is an invasive species originally found in South America. Over the past few decades, it has found a home in U.S. Gulf states and parts of Texas. The ant, named “crazy” for its erratic movements, can outcompete native ant species when it takes hold, and can overwhelm small animals with sheer numbers.
In 2013, Science Friday spoke with Edward LeBrun, a research scientist at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory of UT Austin, about the ant and its ability to outcompete fire ants in the southern U.S. Now, LeBrun returns to share news of a possible biological control for the ants, a form of fungus that can cause infected nests to collapse over a period of years. It’s a good news, bad news situation—while most insecticides and baits don’t work to control the ants, the fungus can produce local extinction.
However, it takes years to work, and currently requires transferring hundreds of infected ants into a nest—not exactly something you can pick up off the shelf at the local hardware store.