02/01/2019

Yes, It’s Cold. But Also, It’s Warmer

7:44 minutes

a vessel comes out to a boat that had been stranded on a snow-covered frozen bay
Coast Guard Station Sturgeon Bay and Department of Natural Resources crews respond to seven stranded ice fishermen near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, January 29, 2019. All seven people were loaded into two airboats and transported to shore. Credit: Coast Guard News/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’re in the Midwest this week, you don’t need us to tell you that it’s cold. Very cold. An unusual wind pattern has pumped air southward from the Arctic this week, dropping temperatures into dangerously low territory. But at the same time, Australia is experiencing a summertime heat wave, with scorching hot conditions. When the global temperatures are averaged out, the planet is about 0.3 degrees Celsius warmer than a baseline average.  

Umair Irfan, a staff writer for Vox, joins John Dankosky to talk about the current weather and larger climate connections. They’ll also tackle other stories from the week in science, including an outbreak of measles in the Pacific Northwest, an update on the case of the CRISPR gene-edited babies in China, and a look ahead to an all-electric pickup truck from Ford.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. 

Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about digital art. But first, I’ve got some news that may come as something of a surprise to you. Are you ready? 

You may not have heard, but it’s been pretty cold in the Midwest this week. It’s the result of a weather pattern known as the polar vortex. And here to talk about that and some other stories of the week is Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox. Welcome back, Umair. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, John. Thanks for having me. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re going to skip the “how cold” as a question. We know it’s cold. But why is it so cold right now? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the phenomenon behind it is what’s called the polar vortex, as you mentioned. This is actually something that’s always going on in the Arctic. It’s a counterclockwise moving mass of cold air, but it’s usually bounded by the jet stream. What we saw where that’s unusual is that the jet stream is starting to become a little bit more unstable. And it’s allowed the cold air from the Arctic to sort of extrude and squeeze out over North America. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: So does it have to do with the wind patterns that make the polar vortex dip down this far? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Partially. I mean, there’s a high pressure system building up over the Pacific and a low pressure system over North America. And so that kind of creates a pressure imbalance that allows the cold air from the far north just to get shunted right over much of the country. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it’s really cold in a lot of the US. But meanwhile it’s really, really hot in Australia right now? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. It’s hard to believe that there are other countries in the world, but yes there are. And in Australia, it’s been extremely hot. They just reported this morning that January was its hottest month ever. 

It’s summer in Australia. And there are towns in Australia that have had two weeks in a row of temperatures above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. They’ve had to euthanize horses and camels. And it shows that just the overall warming trend due to climate change is still in place. The planetary average this week has been about 0.3 degrees Celsius, above the baseline. So warming is still taking place. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: So hold it. If you look at the globe as a whole right now, we’re slightly warmer than we should be despite how cold it is here in the US? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. That’s right. And scientists also detect an El Nino brewing in the Pacific and they think that 2019 could end up being the hottest year on record. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: Really quickly, maybe you could remind us about the difference between weather and climate. People are always making jokes, you know, global warming during a polar vortex. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. The short of it is that climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. The climate is the statistics, what we kind of estimate the average is. And then the weather is what we experience on a day-to-day level. So on balance, we do expect that the climate is going to continue to warm and those weather patterns will still continue to change as a consequence of that. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: All right. So here’s some more depressing wintertime news. It seems there’s a serious measles outbreak happening in the Pacific Northwest. What can you tell us? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. The Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, declared a public health emergency last week. As of this morning, there have been 42 confirmed cases of measles and most of them are children under 10 years old. And that’s really alarming because measles is a very, very contagious disease. 

You can catch measles just by being in the room several hours after somebody with measles was in it. It’s one of the few viruses that can be transmitted using that method. And so public health officials are very concerned here. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: So even a number as small as 42 is a number to be concerned about? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. And in this area, Clark County, which is sort of the epicenter of this outbreak, the concern is that they have a very high rate of children that are not vaccinated. They have some of the more relaxed school vaccination rules. 

And they estimate that there are about 7% or more of children that are not vaccinated for this disease. The national average of unvaccinated children for nonmedical reasons is about 2% So it’s a lot higher than what we expect in the rest of the country. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: So the school vaccination rate is really what the cause is of this outbreak right now. 

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s kind of what the public health officials seem to be thinking right now. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: Measles is well suited to this kind of wintertime outbreak. Why? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, in the winter people spend a lot more time in enclosed environments. And so they spend a lot of more time indoors. And even in the few public spaces that people go out to, you’re going to be contained more, closer together in places like stores and things like that, rather than in outdoor marketplaces, which increases the likelihood of actually being around somebody who has the virus. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: You talked about the rates of people who are immunized. Do you have to get to a certain amount of people immunized in any one area to get that herd immunity effect that we talk about, that actually allows people to not get measles whenever there’s an outbreak? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it varies from disease to disease. But there is a threshold that public health officials refer to as herd immunity, as you mentioned. 

The idea is that there are people who can’t get vaccinated for various medical reasons, so if they’re immunocompromised or what have you. And in order to protect them, they have to make sure that there’s sort of a shield of people that are immunized, that are constantly around them. And that ends up serving as sort of a barrier to prevent outbreaks. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: There’s also been news this week about the twin babies in China that allegedly had their genomes edited via CRISPR. Maybe you can remind us what happened there? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, last year a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, announced that he had– announced the delivery of two twin baby girls, Nana and Lulu, who were engineered to be immune to the AIDS virus, HIV. And a lot of scientists, of course, were very alarmed. But there was also no verification of that. 

But last month, the Chinese government did verify that this happened. And they’re now considering punishing the scientist for it. And then this week, we found out that there was actually a US scientist who knew about this experiment ahead of time. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: A US scientist who knew, did more people across the scientific community know about this as it was happening? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, that’s the speculation right now. The scientist in question, Craig Mello, is a is a Nobel laureate. And he was on the board of directors of one of Jiankui’s companies. And in some of the e-mails that were revealed this week by the Associated Press, they pointed out that Mello was trying to discourage Jiankui from doing this experiment for various reasons, then said he didn’t want to be a part of it. But the other question is why he didn’t raise the alarm a bit ahead of time? 

And then this morning, NPR reported that there was a researcher at Columbia University, Dieter Egli, who’s also conducting human embryo research with CHRISPR. Though in this case, he insists that none of these are designed to be viable embryos. They’re not designed to be delivered as babies. These are strictly a laboratory experiment. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: A last quick thing about this, now that we have some more news, it seems likely that these children in China actually do exist, that this isn’t some elaborate hoax. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. I mean, the fact that the Chinese authorities have acknowledged this and they are seriously considering punishments for this means that they are taking it very seriously. To my knowledge, nobody outside of China has verified this. But it does seem likely that this is something that has already happened. And it’s a sign that the science is moving well past, well ahead of the ethics, and the rules, and regulations around this research. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: We just have about a minute left. But I want to talk about a fun story though. News this week about pickup trucks? Tell us. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. US automakers have been saying for a long time that the future is electric. But their offerings have been meager. But in the middle of the month last month, a senior Ford official said that they want to make an electric version of the F-150. 

It’s the single most popular car in the United States. And pickup trucks are a huge cultural icon in this country. So the idea that they’re going to be making an electric version seems to signal both a strategic shift for the company, but also sort of a cultural shift, where electric vehicles are catching on. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: But electric vehicles are seen by some as wimpy. Trucks are supposed to be macho. I mean, can they sell the electric trucks? 

UMAIR IRFAN: That remains to be seen. Yeah. I mean, will Toby Keith sing songs about an electric F-150? I don’t know. But there are also some other companies that are getting in on this. 

General Motors said they are investigating an electric pickup truck. So is Tesla. And then there are a couple startup companies, Rivian and Bollinger, that are working on pretty much just electric pickup trucks and SUVs. So it seems like this is a market that could be ripe for it. 

Electric drive trains, they generate a lot of torque, which is useful for towing. And so that’s something that could be an advantage in an electric pickup truck. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ll wait for the country songs to come out. Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington. Thanks so much for being with us. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks, John.

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