Skip to main content

Notebook Science


Patches of bare land next to the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland in 2016 (NASA via AP)


Retreat and advance

A Greenland glacier’s growth shocks climate scientists

Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier, formerly one of the fastest-shrinking glaciers on earth, is suddenly growing again—and many climate scientists are stunned.

“At first we didn’t believe it,” Ala Khazendar, a NASA researcher who co-authored a new study on the glacier, said in a statement.

Scientists worried about global warming say that even Jakobshavn’s unexpected growth is ultimately bad news for the planet. But skeptics of man-made climate change say the glacial surprise is further evidence that the dire predictions of global warming alarmists aren’t reliable.

For 20 years the Jakobshavn Glacier continued to thin and move inland at ever-increasing speeds. In the summer of 2012, its retreat accelerated to a record speed of 10 miles per year, three times the rate it moved in the 1990s, NASA reported.

Scientists studying the glacier believe its recent growth is likely due to a flip in the North Atlantic Oscillation, a natural cooling and warming cycle in parts of the ocean. That natural cycle has caused the water in Disko Bay, where Jakobshavn flows into the ocean, to cool by about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the past few years.

All of this seems like good news: Researchers previously warned that the shrinking glacier was draining a large portion of the Greenland Ice Sheet and significantly contributing to sea level rise in the Northern Hemisphere—a phenomenon they warned would prove disastrous for agriculture and bird and fish habitats. But Ian Joughin, a University of Washington ice scientist, told The Associated Press it would be a “grave mistake” to interpret the latest data as contradicting climate change science. The glacier’s reversal is just “a temporary blip,” he said.

According to Josh Willis, a co-author of the study, published March 25 in Nature Geoscience, the glacier’s new growth isn’t good news in the long term. Instead, it shows that ocean temperature influences glacier shrinkage and growth even more than previously thought.

But John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center of the University of Alabama, told me that glacial regions are very complex and thus predictions are often unreliable. Glaciers come and go: “It’s the natural variability of the system.”

Christy said climate alarmists may turn even a failed prediction into a reason to foresee disaster. “You can’t let a potential catastrophe go to waste if you want to advance some type of environmental political agenda.”

Share this article with friends.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bird flu test samples at the analytical diagnostics lab at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


Hazards in the lab

Risky viral research gets a government green light

The United States government has quietly resumed funding for certain high-risk viral experiments that regulators had blocked for four years, according to a February report by Science magazine.

The experiments, known as gain-of-function studies, involve scientists modifying a dangerous virus to make it even more potent and contagious and conducting experiments aimed at finding a vaccine or cure. These experiments often produce highly contagious pathogens potentially capable of wide and uncontrolled spread in human populations. Many scientists fear these deadly viruses could ignite a pandemic if they somehow escaped from the lab or fell into the hands of bioterrorists, and some believe they should be banned.

In 2011 two researchers, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the University of Tokyo, alarmed the scientific world by revealing they had separately modified the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus so that it spread between ferrets. Many scientists warned the modification might mean the potent virus could also jump to humans.

After a voluntary moratorium by the two researchers’ labs, the experiments resumed in 2013 under new U.S. oversight rules. But concerns reignited after more scientists conducted gain-of-function studies and a series of accidents occurred at federal biocontainment labs. In 2014, U.S. officials announced a pause on federal funding for 18 gain-of-function studies involving influenza, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, and severe acute respiratory syndrome viruses.

In December 2017, the National Institutes of Health lifted the funding pause and invited new gain-of-function research proposals that a safety committee would review. Last year, the committee approved resuming the same type of work in the Fouchier and Kawaoka labs that started the whole debate eight years ago.

Kawaoka told Science he’s glad the government developed new oversight mechanisms and that he can resume his experiments: “We know that it does carry risks. We also believe it is important work to protect human health.”

Share this article with friends.




Treatment in sight

Non-embryonic stem cells could treat age-related blindness

Nearly 11 million Americans suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in people 65 and older. Currently, no cure exists.

But now the federally run National Eye Institute has announced plans to begin human trials of a stem cell therapy to treat the disease, pending FDA approval. The treatment technique avoids the use of embryonic stem cells, which require the destruction of human embryos, and instead uses alternative lab-produced cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). If the human trials gain approval, it will be the first time researchers have used iPSCs to treat a human disease, said National Eye Institute researcher Kapil Bharti in a statement. And since iPSCs are made with a patient’s own cells, they face a minimal chance of rejection once implanted.

In the advanced stages of AMD, retinal pigment epithelial cells (RPEs) begin to die. Light-sensing cells in the retina, or photoreceptor cells, depend on the RPEs to supply them with nutrition and oxygen. When RPEs die, so do the retinal cells, causing blindness.

In animal studies described in the Jan. 16 issue of Science Translational Medicine, the researchers took iPSCs derived from rat and pig blood cells and programmed them to become RPEs. They then grew these cells into small, thin sheets and inserted them into the animals’ eyes between their RPEs and photoreceptor cells. The lab-made RPEs integrated with the animals’ retinas within 10 weeks and kept the remaining photoreceptor cells alive, stopping progression of the disease.

Any stem cell therapy involves the potential risk that the cells will form tumors, but when the researchers analyzed their lab-created cells, they found no mutations that would lead to tumor growth.

Share this article with friends.